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Editorial Advisory Board: Schaefer’s Baltimore — and ours

William Donald Schaefer was laid to rest on Wednesday. Although he served as governor and comptroller of Maryland, he will be remembered best for the job he loved most, being mayor of Baltimore. This year marks the 40th anniversary of his initial election as mayor and the 25th anniversary of his resignation to become governor. His death and the anniversaries give us an occasion to reflect on his Baltimore legacy and the future of the city.

Mayor Schaefer never was satisfied. As soon as one project got under way, he started to push for the next one. His impatience was legendary. As we look around Baltimore today, especially downtown Baltimore, we are not satisfied. The central business district is showing clear signs of decline. Redevelopment projects on both sides of downtown are stalled.

The Baltimore that William Donald Schaefer faced when he was elected mayor in 1971 was in a precarious state. Although Baltimore had made great strides in the 1950s and 1960s with projects such as slum clearance and Charles Center, Baltimore’s psyche was shaken by the 1968 riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and flight to the suburbs was palpable.

Into the fore stepped a bachelor who still lived in his childhood home in a neighborhood that many middle-class residents had fled. William Donald Schaefer was not able to turn around the forces of suburbanization and deindustrialization that were impacting Baltimore. But, he brought Baltimore back from the brink with both a vision that Baltimore could reinvigorate itself and a devotion to the details, such as potholes and trash removal, that are important in the day-to-day life of citizens.

Diminished resources

Downtown Baltimore was a much better place in 1986 when Mayor Schaefer left for Annapolis than it was in 1971 when he became mayor. Baltimore has built upon the successes of the Schaefer years. In the last 25 years, two modern stadiums have been built (facilitated by then-Governor Schaefer), Inner Harbor East has risen from vacant lots and both the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins Hospital campuses have grown dramatically in the last generation. Many professionals, especially those in their 20s and 30s, have opted to live in the city rather than the suburbs.

But, Baltimore, especially the central core of downtown, has had significant reverses in recent years. Hopkins Plaza, with the abandoned Mechanic Theatre, is a ghost town. Charles Street between Lombard and Fayette streets, once the center of downtown activity, is full of empty storefronts. Office vacancies are at record levels and several large buildings are completely empty. And, Baltimore’s population decline has continued even when neighboring cities, such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., have seen their populations increase between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.

Schaefer had many resources available to him that either do not exist today or are vastly diminished. He was able to tap into millions of dollars in state and federal funds and rely on the leaders of a still vibrant business community. Although Baltimore always will be the recipient of state and federal largesse, the ability and desire of the state and federal governments to ship truckloads of dollars to Baltimore is a thing of the past. The businesses whose leaders supported Mayor Schaefer’s projects either have been acquired by out-of-town entities (e.g., Maryland National Bank, USF&G, the Rouse Company) or no longer exist (e.g., the four Baltimore department stores). Industrial employers, such as Bethlehem Steel and General Motors, that provided jobs with decent wages and benefits for generations of Baltimoreans, are shadows of their former selves.

Mayor Schaefer was not without his critics. In 1983, he faced his most significant mayoral election challenge from former Baltimore City Circuit Judge William H. “Billy” Murphy, Jr. Murphy’s campaign theme was that there were “Two Baltimores” — the sparkling downtown that Schaefer touted and the other, poor and underserved Baltimore.

In 1986, Schaefer had a spirited challenge from then-Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs for the Democratic nomination for governor. Sachs’ campaign pointed out that Schaefer’s accomplishments were just a thin veneer over Baltimore’s enduring problems. Crime was an issue in the 1970s and 1980s, just as it is today. The drugs may be different, but Baltimore always has had significant drug-fueled crime. No mayor alone can solve Baltimore’s, or the United States’ drug problems. But, he or she must find a way to deal with the many ills that poverty and drugs inflict upon Baltimore.

No magic answers

As we look around today, we see several issues that must be addressed if Baltimore, especially downtown Baltimore, is going to thrive. First and foremost are crime and taxes. The “other Baltimore” is a continuing and growing impediment to any redevelopment in Baltimore. It is no coincidence that the Baltimore neighborhoods that are thriving largely have barriers that protect them from the high crime areas of the city. The increasing crime in the central business district scares off not only people who might stay downtown after dark, but it also causes businesses and prospective employees to think twice about coming downtown at all.

The tax burden also is a significant factor in a business’s decision to locate in the city or elsewhere. Baltimore’s real property tax rate is more than twice the rate of any other jurisdiction in Maryland.

If a young, reincarnated William Donald Schaefer were to be mayor of Baltimore today, he or she would not be able to use the same playbook that the original William Donald Schaefer used. But, there is much about Mayor Schaefer that his successor and those who aspire to the job could emulate.

Mayor Schaefer was a master of public relations and hype. As much as we may laugh at his antics, they did have a positive effect on the psyche of a city that truly was depressed after the 1968 riots. Would Pink Positive Day work in the 21st Century? Would “Trash Ball, A Neat Game, A Neat City” catch on today? Maybe not. But, positive publicity can go a long way to changing self-fulfilling perceptions of doom. Chrysler’s paean to Detroit that was broadcast during the Super Bowl this year is a good example.

“Do it NOW” was William Donald Schaefer’s motto. There were times when “Do it NOW” caused problems later, such as the building of the light rail with a single track rather than building it right from the start with a double track. But, for the most part, “Do it NOW” served William Donald Schaefer and the people of Baltimore well. Today, many projects are impeded in regulatory and bureaucratic red tape.

To wish for another William Donald Schaefer is as futile as wishing for a return of streetcars passing by Abe Sherman’s kiosk in front of the Battle Monument or the “Barnes Dance” in front of Hecht’s, Hochschild’s, Hutzler’s and Stewart’s at Howard and Lexington Streets. Although vestiges of yesteryear Baltimore sketched by Gabrielle DeVeaux Clements and photographed by A. Aubrey Bodine still are with us, each generation must make its own vision of Baltimore a reality. William Donald Schaefer had a vision for Baltimore and largely made it work.

As we enter the campaign season for the 2011 municipal elections, we would like to hear what the candidates envision for the future of Baltimore and how they expect to accomplish it. We do not have any magic answers, but we believe that any successful program must include a focus on fighting crime, lowering taxes and making an overgrown and ineffective bureaucracy responsive to the needs of those who want to invest, build and live in Baltimore.

We also recognize that lowered taxes means fewer resources for funding municipal functions. Perhaps we are asking the candidates to pull rabbits out of their hats or perform other magic tricks. But, William Donald Schaefer pulled more than one rabbit out of his hat during his life of public service. No one in the summer of 1968 would have believed that more than a million people would come downtown a few years later for something called a “City Fair.” Few believed that abandoned houses sold for $1.00 would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a few years later.

William Donald Schaefer’s love of Baltimore and his confidence in its future were contagious. Here’s to hoping that his memory will inspire today’s aspiring leaders, and those of us who comment from the sidelines, to regain that confidence and help Baltimore regain the momentum of the late 1970s and 1980s.