Greater Baltimore's Downtowns
“Where all the lights are bright…” That phrase from the iconic Petula Clark song brings up a visual of large bustling downtowns in mid-sized and big cities. Certainly Baltimore City has the largest Downtown in the Greater Baltimore Region in terms of size, density, number of jobs and art/culture/entertainment facilities. However, the smaller towns and municipalities in the Region’s counties are no less significant – whether their downtowns encompass a few blocks or over a hundred.
The restaurants, bars, specialty shops, small service businesses and local “mom and pop” shops that cluster in downtowns create jobs and help establish the personality of the jurisdiction. To a large extent the hub of activity that tends to be clustered in a city or town’s downtown also creates a walkable community attractive to commercial establishments and an asset for attracting talent, residents and visitors.
Greater Baltimore is a region rich in art, culture and history. Not only are many of the structures listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, many of the region’s cities and towns have significant historic districts and there are entire towns that are on the National Registry, such as Port Deposit in Cecil County and Union Bridge in Carroll County. The historic nature of much of the Region helps fuel tourism and the clustering of museums and historic structures in downtowns – big and small – and along main streets are economic development assets generating revenue from visitors both local and from outside of the Region.
There is no doubt that supporting the cluster of businesses – and in many cases residents – in downtown districts is an important element of local economic development strategies and initiatives, whether located within a more rural jurisdiction or those jurisdictions with denser urban centers. These strategies and initiatives can improve the quality of life for everyone by fostering a sense of place that helps attract and retain talent, businesses and residents.
The street-level activity that one finds along a downtown corridor of any size promotes the pedestrian activity that benefits all of the establishments. In fact, over the past few decades we have seen how more suburban communities have recognized the economic value of downtown corridors by creating outdoor facing retail oriented hubs with wide sidewalks, outdoor cafes and limited vehicular traffic, if any. Examples include Baltimore County’s The Avenue at White Marsh and Hunt Valley Town Center. And in Howard County, work has been underway over the past decade to create an urban walkable community in downtown Columbia with the Howard Hughes Corporation as master developer implementing a master plan codified by the County in 2010.
Due to their very nature, downtowns big and small have been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Limitations on the number of patrons permitted at indoor and outdoor restaurants, bars and other establishments normally open to the public, restrictions on if/how other service businesses and gathering places such as fitness centers may open, and a decimated travel and tourism industry has resulted in the temporary and, sadly, permanent closure of the very establishments that are clustered in downtown districts.
In addition to the financial assistance available through the CARES Act and the State of Maryland, the Region’s local governments have initiated programs to assist these establishments in supporting their employees, remaining open or helping them avoid permanent closure with direct grants, partial or complete street closures to facilitate outdoor dining and retail activity, assistance in designing outdoor spaces, and increased emphasis on the importance of buying local. Connect with EAGB’s Economic Development Partners to learn more.
While the availability of vaccines has signaled the waning of the pandemic, it will likely be several months, if not longer, before restrictions and limitations in how we live, work, shop and entertain will end. The continued economic support for the Region’s towns and cities and their commercial centers is critical if local governments, with the assistance of state and federal programs, are to reinvigorate these districts. The importance of once again having thriving commercial centers requires an economic development plan that focuses on retaining and attracting businesses, residents and visitors to these unique assets in each of the Region’s jurisdictions.