Economic development professionals around the nation perceive Baltimore as having had the most success in economic development of any American city during the past five years, according to a study released yesterday by the National League of Cities.

Baltimore, which has been praised for developing its harbor area, was followed by Boston, San Antonio, Atlanta and Indianapolis in the rankings by city officials in 322 cities and towns surveyed by the league.

The survey was based on the development officials' opinions of leading cities rather than actual statistical data.

The report offered several explanations for the cities' success, including political leadership, efforts to break down barriers between public and private sectors and comprehensive downtown revitalization plans.

At a news conference yesterday to discuss the survey's findings, Mayor George Latimer of St. Paul, Minn., a past president of the National League of Cities, said the Baltimore government's restoration of the infrastructure of the city's harbor area was one of the keys to Baltimore's success.

"Massive infrastructure improvements were essential before {the harbor} could become a model of mixed-use development," he said.

Indeed, one of the main conclusions of the study was that improvement in the local infrastructure is one of the two main tools used by city governments to promote economic development; the other is issuing tax-exempt bonds to assist private firms.

Eighty-five percent of the cities surveyed said they used infrastructure improvements, and 78 percent issued tax-exempt bonds to achieve their economic goals.

The report predicted, however, that in the future the use of tax-exempt financing will decline, and other, newer economic development tools will gain importance.

Those new tools are expected to include taxable bonds, venture capital, foreign trade zones, land leasing and various forms of procurement, strategic planning and export assistance.

Four out of five respondents also said they anticipated negative effects on development from increased federal restrictions on tax-exempt financing and from recent cutbacks in federal aid programs to cities -- which have been critical to the development successes of cities like Baltimore.

"When you consider that these local activities are planned and carried out in order to create new jobs, to save existing ones and to encourage economic growth, and you consider the direct negative effects of federal budget cuts and tax policy," Latimer said, "these findings add up to ... a lousy report card for the federal government."