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Downtown Baltimore celebrates 2019 amid uncertain 2020

Baltimore’s downtown maintained its progress toward emerging as a full-fledged live, work and play neighborhood in 2019, according to a booster organization’s annual report, but faces an uncertain future amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the current “State of Downtown Report” found reason for optimism about the neighborhood’s future, Downtown Partnership of Baltimore acknowledged the new coronavirus outbreak means the report does not accurately reflect the district’s current realities.

“Downtown is enduring, (but) downtown must evolve and respond,” Mark Wasserman, interim chairman of the partnership’s board, said during a virtual presentation Tuesday.

The number of jobs in the one-mile radius around Pratt and Light streets grew by roughly 5,000, raising the number of people working downtown to nearly 125,000. The health care, public administration and professional services sectors remained the top employment sectors.

Downtown’s retail vacancy rate of nearly 13% far outpaced the metro rate of nearly 5%. Those vacancies were largely driven by Harborplace, which is in receivership, and the former Best Buy space on Pratt Street. Still, retail sales increased by $119 million from the year before, totaling $1.23 billion.

Occupancy for residential buildings, excluding recently delivered properties that have not stabilized, fell to 93.5%. That drop, according to the partnership, was the result of the delivery of new residential units, including 280 apartments at the Luminary at One Light Street and 282 units at Liberty Harbor East.

The current state of downtown, officials admit, is probably not as rosy. Looking back at how downtown performed “almost seems cruel,” according to the report, initially slated for release in March.

In the roughly 14 weeks since then roughly 843,000 Maryland residents have filed for unemployment. Maryland’s Department of Health has confirmed more than 67,500 cases of COVID-19, and more than 3,000 people have died from the illness during that same time period.

“So many companies are struggling and may not survive. Revenue streams are down, budgets are being cut, staff is being laid off, yet bills continue to mount. Many Downtown businesses and residents are wondering how they’re going to pay the rent,” according to the report.

Among the sectors hardest hit by efforts to staunch the new coronavirus’ spread is the hospitality industry.

As of 2019 there were 9,624 hotel rooms available downtown, with another 963 planned by 2024, according to Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. Total visitor spending in Baltimore last year increased from $5.7 billion the year before to $5.9 billion in 2019.

Since March the industry has taken a pummeling. The budget proposed by Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young anticipated the city losing $40 million in revenues, such as hotel taxes, as a result of the tourism industry being nearly eliminated by the disease during the peak spring traveling months. Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism promotion agency, expected to lose $7 million in revenue through June.

Despite the economic challenges facing downtown some still see its potential and the promise of Baltimore as a whole.

Lindsay Thompson, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Carey School and Bloomberg School of Public Health, said Baltimore is on track to benefit from a broader economic renaissance.

Taking steps, such as maintaining public control of 35 miles of accessibility around the Inner Harbor, and focusing on how residents flourish as the measure of wealth, she said, will position Baltimore to reemerge as a thriving urban hub.

“We’re really pulling the pieces together to become an epicenter of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” Thompson said, referring  to how the interplay of the digital and physical world is reshaping the economy.

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