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Joe Nathanson: How to achieve mayor’s goal to grow the city

In her inaugural speech marking the start of her first full term, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced her goal of having the city gain 10,000 households over this decade.

This is certainly an ambitious goal, considering that the city has been losing population since the middle of the last century. At its peak in 1950, Baltimore City’s population was nearly 950,000. By the 2010 Census, it had fallen to 621,000.

The mayor has a ready resource for her goal of adding new households in Live Baltimore — the nonprofit organization formed to attract new residents to the city.

As the group founded some 15 years ago states on its website: “We exist for one reason — to market the City of Baltimore as a great place to live. Our goal is to grow the City’s population. To facilitate that, we provide a lot of education and marketing outreach to the public so they’ll know the facts about city living. We search for those with the ‘urban gene’ and invite them to be a part of our City!”

Capitalizing on BRAC

In a recent interview with Steven Gondol, the executive director of Live Baltimore, I learned some of the ways the organization pursues its mission.

For four years before becoming executive director last October, Gondol was Live Baltimore’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) relocation manger, charged with marketing the city to the military and civilian employees who were to be relocated from out of state.

The primary focus was on those workers at Fort Monmouth, N.J., whose jobs were scheduled to be relocated to Aberdeen Proving Ground by September 2011.

The outreach efforts included presentations during relocation fairs at the New Jersey base, followed by bus trips to Baltimore. One event, Baltimore Green Light, consisted of an eight-bus cavalcade.

Those on the visit met with neighborhood associations, representatives of arts and cultural institutions and enjoyed Baltimore food.

A survey conducted for the Chesapeake Science and Security Corridor, the regional group formed to facilitate the transfer, identified the residential locations of 3,024 personnel. They represented the largest cluster hired at Aberdeen through September 2011 (both those relocating and new hires).

As one might expect, they located primarily in Harford County (60 percent) and Cecil County (18 percent). Others went further afield, including 77 who opted to live in Baltimore. Gondol reports that they settled primarily in neighborhoods with good access to Interstate 95, including Canton, Fells Point, Federal Hill, downtown and Mount Vernon.

Helping make connections

One of those relocating to Baltimore is Lisa Potteiger, a training manager at Aberdeen. Knowing that her job would be transferred to Maryland when she began her employment at the New Jersey base in 2007, Potteiger at first thought she would look for a place to live close to Aberdeen.

But, as she said in a telephone interview, she decided to explore possibilities for city living. She visited Baltimore looking for a neighborhood with a manageable commute to her job in Harford County. She decided to rent a rowhouse in Canton, a neighborhood she had been told was “safer”.

After she came to Baltimore and began thinking about buying a home here, Potteiger learned about Live Baltimore. She suggested that the group help Aberdeen workers living in the city meet to facilitate carpooling. The group did exactly that with a happy hour.

Live Baltimore was also helpful when Potteiger decided to move from renting to owning a home. She went on the group’s home-buying tour in September and was able to secure one of the $4,000 “Buying into Baltimore” grants for her down payment and closing costs.

The grants come from a $400,000 Baltimore City fund, available to those who complete their purchase within 90 days of the tour. Potteiger is now a very satisfied Canton homeowner and carpooler.

These marketing efforts and incentives can help the mayor move toward her goal of growing the city. The harder part of this effort in 2012 and the years beyond is improving the “product,” insuring safer neighborhoods, improving schools and advancing economic development.

A great disincentive to potential new home buyers and developers of rental housing continues to be the city’s high property tax rate. Beyond relying on revenue from a still-to-be-realized casino, Mayor Rawlings-Blake and her staff should take a serious look at other ways to reduce the property tax burden. Making this a priority would be a worthy resolution for the New Year.

Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He contributes a monthly column to The Daily Record. He can be contacted at urbaninfo@comcast.net.