Nov 2, 2012
When I learned Lexington Market would play host to the Greater Baltimore Technology Council’s annual Tech Night on Thursday, I have to admit I was a bit puzzled.
Why, I wondered, did Lexington Market — the 230-year-old tribute to Baltimore’s mercantile past — strike organizers as the ideal site for celebrating the latest technological innovations?
Those troublemakers over at gb.tc must have something up their sleeve, I thought. With an executive director who also goes by the title of “chief instigator,” how could they not?
Well, they couldn’t — of course. So, once the 750 attendees (almost double the number expected) had sufficiently noshed and networked Thursday night, Executive Director Jason Hardebeck and his team, joined by Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings-Blake, took to the makeshift stage.
They applauded the tech community’s achievements, reflected on the growing scene in Baltimore and roused excitement for the future of tech innovation here.
They also delivered a little news nugget that shed partial light on their curious choice of location: Lexington Market will soon offer customers free wireless Internet.
Gb.tc came up with the idea, and Believe Wireless LLC, an Owings-Mills based Internet provider, will donate the necessary equipment and bandwidth.
Organizers didn’t play up this announcement as much as I think they intended, or at least as much as they said they would. And, personally, I don’t find the news all that staggering.
What’s more interesting is how successful the venue was for an event that, at first glance, seems totally out of place, and I can appreciate the symbolic significance behind it, as could many others at the event.
The move to Lexington Market represented a new approach to Tech Night, which was formerly a more high-brow event held for 20 years at the Baltimore Convention Center with tickets priced at $180 apiece. People wore suits, they made polite conversation.
For the past three years, Tech Night was held at Rams Head Live, but that wasn’t cutting it for Hardebeck, who wanted a new location with a stronger connection to the city and the people that make it hum.
Ticket prices for this year’s event started at $40 (super early bird) and were being sold for $70 on Thursday.
All night, people told me how Hardebeck’s “fresh” and “risky” leadership has a lot to do with what some are calling a reinvigorated tech scene in Baltimore.
Nitin Agarwal, who founded web design company motifworks, said although some of his colleagues were skeptical about the new location on the other side of town, he thought it was exactly the kind of environment they should be aiming for.
Sean Kennedy, founder of BeerGivr — an app that allows users to buy remotely a drink for a friend —agreed with Agarwal (and many others) that Baltimore is not known for its tech community. But, everyone said, it’s getting there.
“It’s just starting to bubble up in Baltimore,” Kennedy said on Thursday night. “We’re seeing it start to boil. And nights like this really help contribute to that.”
Hosting Tech Night inside the market pays homage to Baltimore’s history, organizers said, while celebrating its future.
On the second floor, about 20 up-and-coming tech companies gave product demos and showed off their newest creations. Attendees mingled among tables of the latest and greatest tech inventions while enjoying the tried-and-true hometown favorites sold there for years, including Berger cookies and miniature Faidley’s crab cakes.
The juxtaposition did have a nice effect and the event did what organizers intended: It highlighted the city’s evolution — from a vibrant commercial hub in the 18th century to a region with a surging appetite for technology in the 21st.
“Since the birth of our nation, Lexington Market has been a place where people connected to buy and sell goods. Now, patrons and merchants will be able to communicate digitally, transforming it into a marketplace of ideas that all Baltimoreans can use and enjoy,” Hardebeck said in a statement.
Lexington Market is nothing less than an iconic Baltimore landmark, so I wouldn’t be shocked if traditionalists aren’t thrilled about thrusting a historical gem into the 21st century. But it seems adding Internet capabilities will simply allow the market to stay relevant in an age where people demand it.
Think about it: A place devoid of Internet connectivity feels like a black hole — at least in urban areas. In order to preserve Lexington Market and sustain its potential for profitability, it’s probably a good idea to make it a more attractive spot for people to hang out.
It certainly didn’t seem like an old-fashioned locale Thursday night, as staff used smartphones to scan tickets at the door. As people buzzed around, sipped beer and enjoyed the low-key surroundings, Charm City’s trusty market made for quite the party atmosphere.