A recent Census Bureau report that Baltimore has dropped to
its lowest population level in eight decades has sparked renewed
debate on what interventions might best stem the city's decline.
Since 1990 Baltimore has lost 60,000 residents at an accelerating
annual rate that has reduced the total population to just over
675,000. An estimated 1 million people were thought to live in
the city at its heyday just after World War II.
Most observers agree that in order to stem population decline the city will need an increased supply of jobs. Employment and economic development are essential components of urban redevelopment, but the stumbling block Baltimore and other former industrial cities face is the continuing loss of manufacturing jobs in the post-industrial era. Where then, are the jobs to come from?
One way to brighten the city's future might be to burnish its past. This at least was the suggestion put forth by Maryland Association of History Museums President Beth P. Nowell, who appeared as part of the Wednesday Noon Series April 2 on the Homewood campus.
In a slide show lecture titled "The Future of Baltimore's Past: Heritage as a Factor in Education, Tourism and Urban Redevelopment," Nowell suggested that the city's unique history is a potentially valuable resource ripe for development. Her expertise in the matter comes not only through her close association with the Maryland Association of History Museums but also through her work with the Baltimore Museum of Industry, where she serves as director of public affairs.
Noting that a recent study ranked tourism as the No. 2 industry in the state, Nowell suggested that a concerted, coordinated effort among state agencies and historical sites might further enhance tourism's impact.
"Collaboration is the key to tourism development," she said in an interview prior to her lecture. "We are rich in history, but we haven't learned to use that tool as effectively as, for instance, our neighbors in Philadelphia have done."
In her presentation, Nowell traced a thread of constant change in Baltimore's economic development that suggests the collapse of manufacturing need not mean the collapse of the city. On two other occasions--once in the 18th century and again in the 19th--the city underwent major economic realignment and emerged stronger than before.
The first occurred in the mid-1700s, when a local doctor by the name of John Stevenson saw the potential in international grain trade and convinced local farmers to switch to wheat from tobacco. That switch led to the creation of mills along the waterways that feed the bay and an economic boom in the processing and shipping of flour.
A half century or so later, many of the mills were converted to the manufacture of textiles and other products as the new country struggled to achieve self-sufficiency. This trend continued. By the end of the 19th century, water power had largely given way to coal and steam, and textiles were augmented by additional manufacturing in steel, copper and machinery. It was a heavy industry and manufacturing economy that generated tremendous wealth and defined the city's unique character, a character marked by imagination and innovation, Nowell said.
"Baltimore was the first city to be lit by gas lights. It gave birth to the railroads in America and was home to the world's first umbrella factory," Nowell said. "The city had a wealth of industry and innovation that truly had a global impact."
The challenge facing contemporary business and political leaders is to find the means by which the city can begin to reassert that importance. University President William R. Brody called for closer cooperation between the university and the city in economic development in his inaugural address Feb. 23. History-based tourism may be one avenue of cooperation. Two of the city's notable historic sites--Homewood House and Evergreen-- are part of the university system, attracting about 20,000 admissions annually, according to the director of historic houses, Lili Ott.
Nor are they the only Hopkins attractions that bring people to Baltimore. "Hopkins has become a national and international destination for patients, students and parents of students, who also enjoy many of the tourist features of the city and the state," President Brody said recently. "As we expand in each of these areas--in education, in research and in patient care--we help stimulate tourism to the city. For instance, many people fail to recognize that Hopkins Medicine had over 20,000 outpatient visits by foreign patients alone last year. That's enough to keep several hotels busy."
But although tourism may play a significant role in the future Baltimore economy, Brody and others stress the need for experimentation and innovation if the city is to thrive once again. "Those regions of the country whose economies are doing the best are hotbeds of new company formation," Brody said. "Places like Silicon Valley, Boston, Minneapolis, and now Atlanta, Raleigh/Durham, Arizona and most recently Northern Virginia are hot spots for innovative new companies."
If the Baltimore region could emulate these models, there is the potential of significant reward. One estimate suggests that if two new innovative companies are founded each year, in all likelihood it would yield one with revenue potential in the $500 million range in 10 years and several more in the $50 to $250 million range. "These few successes would not only provide lots of new jobs, but would also serve as sources of entrepreneurs for other start-ups," Brody said. "Success begets success."
Possible future growth industries for the city and surrounding regions include information technologies, marine biology, biotechnology, and financial and educational services. "The university can provide the research and technology spin-offs as well as the students who will often start these new companies," Brody said. "Once you can establish a cluster of companies within an industry, you provide the synergy, competition, source of know-how and talent that is necessary for economic advancement."
Regardless of which new industries eventually replace manufacturing as the foundation of Baltimore's economy, education of the current and future work-force is a key priority. "Much of the city's historical fabric and heritage is preserved and interpreted by the more than 20 museums that are part of the Baltimore History Alliance and the Maryland Association of History Museums," Nowell said. "We're here to educate and we take that mission very seriously. One thing is for certain. History museums in Baltimore City are not warehouses for dead history. We are educational tools for the future history and achievements of Baltimore."
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