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Editorial: Too much infighting over city’s development projects

All the recent sniping over whether to grant taxpayer-financed infrastructure subsidies to help lure Exelon to a proposed development at Harbor Point has obscured a critical point — that ultimately, any new development will help the city as a whole.

One of the concerns raised regarding public assistance for this nine-figure project is that the shiny Exelon tower, along with new and enhanced office space at Harbor East, will shift a critical mass of the city’s businesses away from the traditional downtown area. Invested parties are worried that downtown could become a ghost town in favor of fancier digs just to the east.

That’s not an entirely invalid concern, but it assumes something that isn’t true — that the economic development pie is limited. The theory goes that if you simply move high-profile, profitable businesses to another location within Baltimore, that leaves building shells and urban blight at the former sites with little opportunity for renewal.

But the pool of businesses that could be attracted to the city isn’t fixed. Businesses start and shutter all the time, and the ebb and flow of attraction and departure is all part of the natural business cycle. Also, while traditional uses for empty downtown offices may not be viable, there may be creative ways to use the vacant square footage, such as laboratory or research space.

That means that leaders in any ZIP code can never, ever rest on their history or current amenities to attract and retain businesses. There may be some CEOs who make decisions based on nostalgia and loyalty, but there are many more factors that go into site selection and, ultimately, a good executive must make a call as to what’s best for the company.

When it comes to Baltimore, a sense of parochialism has crept in for some — a statement from the Downtown Management Authority opposing the TIF for Harbor Point says: “Exelon will leave behind two very appealing office buildings near the Inner Harbor, and tenants in other buildings farther from the waterfront will obviously be attracted to those spaces. Once again, office buildings in the historic core … — no matter how hard their owners try to make them competitive — will suffer.”

This is short-sighted. Baltimore is a city that desperately needs revitalization in many areas, and signature projects like this can help build a critical mass to which other companies will be attracted. Feeding the perception that the city is schizophrenic in its vision by arguing over precisely where a grand project should go only makes economic development endeavors down the road more challenging.

Baltimore’s infighting is not new to Maryland. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have been going head-to-head for years trying to attract D.C.-based business. For that matter, Maryland and Virginia have long been locked in an economic development war that some say has led to what amounts to corporate extortion for public incentives.

What makes this case different is that the dispute is not between different jurisdictions, but between different neighborhoods. The efforts to preserve and enhance the traditional downtown are impressive and worthwhile, but the city’s overall welfare extends beyond a few selected blocks.