Missing the Point – Brandon Scott, the Developers’ Mayor

As you may have read or seen on the local news, there is a plan on the table – encouraged and endorsed by Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott – for the redevelopment of the city’s downtown flagship property, Harborplace.

The retail tourist facility, as a reflection of the city overall, has fallen on hard times, despite its proximity to the Horseshoe Casino, Topgolf, and other entertainment zone attractions nearby.  The redo will involve new retail, commercial, residential, and outdoor development.  Total cost, $500 million in private money, plus $400 million in public funding for infrastructure.

Offhand, it sounds like a good thing, long overdue.  So why does it qualify as subject matter for a “Missing the Point” op/ed?  For two reasons.

For one thing, redevelopment of the Inner Harbor is not going to contribute significantly to saving the city of Baltimore.  Nor will Port Covington, nor did the Casino and any other downtown development.  Why not?  Because they do little or nothing to help “the other City of Baltimore” where families and the neighborhood economies in which they live struggle every day to get by.  The downtown/Inner Harbor is just a place where some developers believe there’s a profit to be made – provided, of course, they can benefit from significant support from the city government.

Let’s be honest and ask ourselves how this redevelopment will benefit the households and local businesses in the city’s disadvantaged neighborhoods.  How many jobs, directly and indirectly, will be created specifically for the residents of these city neighborhoods, not including employment for reverse commuters from surrounding counties?  Will new Inner Harbor apartments help resolve the city’s housing crisis for lower and middle-income families?  How many of these neighborhood residents can afford to shop and eat at downtown stores and restaurants?  Will day-tripping and overnight tourists be shopping in West Baltimore stores?

Are the developers of these various projects the problem?  No.  They’re just businesses, some more socially sensitive than others, motivated by the making of profits, doing what businesses do.  The problem is the city government and Mayor Brandon Scott in particular.

Scott, who has done nothing to slow and reverse the city’s deterioration, has two constituencies.  On one hand, he has the people, the regular citizens whose votes he needs to get elected.  On the other hand, there are the developers and their partners, tenants, and attorneys whose money he needs to fund his political campaigns.

Unfortunately, Mayor Scott has chosen to patronize the former while doing pretty much whatever the latter asks him to do.  The result is a distracted city government that has consistently failed to address Baltimore’s major problems in any meaningful way.

I’ll give you just one example…  In a statement by the Baltimore Office of Sustainability entitled “Baltimore City Food Desert Retail Strategy, we learn that “One in four Baltimoreans lives in a food desert – areas where the residents lack access and sufficient economic resources to purchase healthy food.”  The Baltimore City Health Department defines a food desert to be “an area where the distance to a supermarket or supermarket alternative is more than ¼ mile,” where “median household income is at or below 185% of the Federal Poverty Level” and where “over 30% of households have no vehicle available.”

There are, in other words, too few supermarkets – in many cases, no supermarkets at all for the Baltimore families that need them the most – access to which the rest of us take for granted.

Some years ago, I asked a developer who needed city government support for a special project if, in return for that support, he would be willing to build a small strip center, with a full-size grocery store, maybe a drug store, and some other essential retail outlets in one of the city’s struggling neighborhoods.  The honest answer was, “Why should we?  No one’s even bothered to ask.  And, what with the crime and limited, lower-income customer base, there’s no way it’ll break even, let alone make a profit.”  Words to that effect.  It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but it was a reasonable response.

This is a problem Mayor Scott could fix.  He has the authority, if only he had the creativity and courage to make the city a better place for disadvantaged families to work and live, to educate their children, to do something so fundamental as buy quality, healthy food at a neighborhood grocery store.

Assuming a city population of 600,000 people, the “one in four” who live in food deserts is 150,000 people.  Simply put, Major Scott is willing to neglect 150,000 city residents, preferring instead to approve yet another downtown project for the benefit of some residents there, some tourists, and a relative handful of developers and Inner Harbor businesses.

Here’s a thought, a suggestion for Mayor Scott.  Why not tell the redevelopers of the Inner Harbor that the city will help them if they do more to help the City?  Let Baltimore take the lead in providing public funding.  But then require, as part of the deal, that the developers fund a series of neighborhood-owned and operated strip centers with full-size grocery stores and other essential retail operations including urgent care facilities.  Let’s call these centers “Baltimore’s Best” and let them be joint ventures with major retailers in our area.  And insist that they are run exclusively by local residents in both management and staff positions.

If you know the Mayor or are running against him, tell him that he has failed to negotiate the best deal for the City of Baltimore.  He needs to do better, much better, but it’s hard, isn’t it?  The people are depending upon him to negotiate on their behalf against formidable developers and their agents upon whom the Mayor depends for re-election.  He has a conflict of interest if ever there was one – and should recuse himself in favor of truly independent counsel and other government authorities.

Mr. Mayor, you need to demand a more all-inclusive deal for the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor that benefits the entire city.  And don’t take “No” for an answer.  If not you…  If you won’t stand up for the people of your city, well then it will be up to whoever takes over the Major’s office after next November’s election.

Or, you could just say “No” to providing any public money for remodeling the Inner Harbor in favor of spending the $400 million directly on building these “Baltimore’s Best” facilities throughout the city.  With 150,000 city residents living in food deserts, it’s the least you can do.

FYI, Democrats have until February 9, 2024, to register to run for Mayor in the May 14, 2024, primary.