Mak­ing down­town a pri­or­ity again

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - COMMENTARY - By Wil­liam King

The Down­town Part­ner­ship of Bal­ti­more, a decades-old non­profit tasked with over­see­ing cen­tral down­town’s business im­prove­ment district, has re­cently launched a na­tion­wide search for its next pres­i­dent. This fol­lows the an­nounce­ment last De­cem­ber that cur­rent pres­i­dent Kirby Fowler, who has headed the or­ga­ni­za­tion for some 15 years, will soon de­part to be­come CEO of the Mary­land Zoo.

De­spite valiant ef­forts by the Down­town Part­ner­ship and oth­ers in re­cent years, Bal­ti­more’s cen­tral business district con­tin­ues to suf­fer from ris­ing crime, fail­ing in­fra­struc­ture, gen­eral un­clean­li­ness and a spate of high-pro­file store and restau­rant clo­sures. But there is good news as well, in­clud­ing Gov. Larry Ho­gan’s an­nounce­ment last year that sev­eral thou­sand state em­ploy­ees will re­lo­cate from the State Cen­ter com­plex on Pre­ston Street to down­town of­fice space.

Down­town must put its best foot for­ward in 2020, and it is crit­i­cal that who­ever re­places Mr. Fowler have first-hand knowledge of the neigh­bor­hood and a will­ing­ness to ex­plore strate­gic changes to im­prove the Down­town Part­ner­ship’s ef­fec­tive­ness.

The scope of the Down­town Part­ner­ship’s ef­forts has grown ex­po­nen­tially in re­cent years, and now in­cludes a large team of high-paid of­fice staff work­ing on a wide va­ri­ety of projects — from creative so­cial events, to dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing cam­paigns, to pro­mot­ing down­town at na­tional and in­ter­na­tional trade shows. How­ever, mem­bers of the com­mu­nity lament that the or­ga­ni­za­tion has also grown more in­sti­tu­tional, less ap­proach­able and seems more con­cerned at times with grow­ing its own brand than pro­vid­ing ba­sic and di­rect street-level ser­vices to its mem­bers.

Stake­hold­ers have re­marked that the ge­o­graph­i­cal scope of the Down­town

Part­ner­ship’s work has ex­panded as well, such that much of its pro­gram­ming (par­tic­u­larly its mar­ket­ing ef­forts and grow­ing cal­en­dar of events) high­lights busi­nesses and prop­er­ties out­side of the Down­town Man­age­ment District — those blocks at the heart of down­town that prop­erty own­ers pay a spe­cial as­sess­ment to have main­tained by the Down­town Part­ner­ship. In­deed, the Down­town Part­ner­ship opted to hold its 2019 an­nual meet­ing at Cross Street Mar­ket in Fed­eral Hill. It is no won­der that prop­erty own­ers en­deav­ored at one point last year to form a new or­ga­ni­za­tion, the Cen­ter City Coali­tion, out of a frus­tra­tion that key blocks in cen­tral down­town were not get­ting the at­ten­tion they de­served.

The Down­town Part­ner­ship must get back to ba­sics in 2020 with a laser-like fo­cus on clean, green and safe streets within the Down­town Man­age­ment District foot­print. Most im­por­tantly, Down­town Part­ner­ship lead­ers must com­mit to re-en­gag­ing all of the busi­nesses and prop­erty own­ers within the Down­town Man­age­ment District and open up new lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with those key stake­hold­ers, cre­at­ing more trans­parency as to how their spe­cial as­sess­ment dol­lars are spent.

Also, as the largest and most in­flu­en­tial or­ga­ni­za­tion in a sea of sim­i­larly fo­cused down­town im­prove­ment groups, the Down­town Part­ner­ship must do a bet­ter job of work­ing with, and not against, its part­ner or­ga­ni­za­tions. A new­comer in down­town Bal­ti­more to­day is con­fronted by a com­plex web of non­profit and quasi-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions all work­ing to­ward roughly the same goal — im­prov­ing qual­ity of life for res­i­dents, busi­nesses and vis­i­tors in and around down­town Bal­ti­more. For those un­fa­mil­iar with the land­scape, the list is long and in­cludes the Down­town Part­ner­ship of Bal­ti­more, City Cen­ter Res­i­dents As­so­ci­a­tion,

Wa­ter­front Part­ner­ship of Bal­ti­more, Visit Bal­ti­more, Mar­ket Cen­ter Mer­chants As­so­ci­a­tion, Charles Street De­vel­op­ment Corporatio­n, Bal­ti­more De­vel­op­ment Corporatio­n and oth­ers.

To lessen the con­fu­sion and du­pli­ca­tion of effort that un­for­tu­nately has oc­curred in this space, the Down­town Part­ner­ship should con­sider tak­ing the lead on work­ing with these groups to craft a com­pre­hen­sive plan for how we can all op­er­ate side-by-side co­op­er­a­tively and ef­fi­ciently. In­creased col­lab­o­ra­tion with the new City Cen­ter Res­i­dents As­so­ci­a­tion, which rep­re­sents thou­sands of res­i­dents now liv­ing down­town, is es­pe­cially crit­i­cal as down­town con­tin­ues its tran­si­tion into a 24/7 res­i­den­tial com­mu­nity.

Fi­nally, the Down­town Part­ner­ship must ex­ude — in ev­ery­thing it does — a younger, more di­verse and more op­ti­mistic en­ergy and en­thu­si­asm for Bal­ti­more’s his­toric down­town, which was for years, and must be­come again, the cen­ter of Mary­land com­merce and cul­ture. The re­al­ity is that cen­tral down­town is still seen by many (es­pe­cially those un­der 30) as a dusty old com­mer­cial district — lack­ing both the stream­lined lux­ury of Har­bor East and the funky arts scene found in Mount Ver­non, Sta­tion North or Ham­p­den.

I grew up hear­ing sto­ries of Mayor Wil­liam Don­ald Schae­fer’s “Do It Now” cam­paign, and of a time when every­one thought the world of down­town Bal­ti­more. It’s time to bring that feel­ing back, par­tic­u­larly to the cen­tral business district. This must start with who we choose to lead the Down­town Part­ner­ship in 2020 and be­yond.

Wil­liam King (bmore­bil­lk­[email protected]) is a Bal­ti­more at­tor­ney, former Down­town Part­ner­ship Board mem­ber and founder and past pres­i­dent of the non­profit City Cen­ter Res­i­dents As­so­ci­a­tion.

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