Op-Ed: Expensive lessons in Baltimore

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D – Baltimore) speaks at the opening of a “Natural Play Space” in Baltimore. Photo courtesy Rep. Elijah Cummings’ official Facebook page.

Following is a Maine Examiner Op-Ed from contributor Ken Frederic.

The longer one waits to learn life lessons, the more those lessons cost:  I’ve experienced the truth of that in lessons I failed to learn in my ‘youth’.  Among those are that the people who criticize you are not necessarily your enemies and those who praise you are not necessarily your friends.

Baltimore and Washington were still smoldering when I moved from Kittery to Maryland in 1968. The suburbs south and west of Baltimore were my home for the next 43 years.  In 1971 William Donald Schaeffer replaced Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro who served one term plagued by financial problems, rioting, and multiple failed projects that evicted residents and demolished large swaths of West Baltimore before being abandoned. Baltimore’s population, in those days, was about 1 million, the same as Maine.

Today, Baltimore is worse off than it was under Mayor “Tommy”. Its population has declined to just over 600 thousand. Abandoned and crumbling buildings dominate wide paths from the AMTRAK corridor in the East to Edmonson Village in the West and from the Inner Harbor South through Cherry Hill to the Beltway.  Crime and drugs are its major occupations. 

I eagerly voted for Democrat Don Schaeffer as Governor and Comptroller because of his record in “cleaning up” Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Federal Hill, and Fells Point neighborhoods.  I believed that his efforts, the later development in Canton, and the two new stadiums demonstrated a real turnaround for Baltimore.   The Inner Harbor complex was bringing more visitors than Disney World.  The sale of abandoned Federal Hill houses for $1 brought in affluent young residents who rebuilt them and lived in them. The Science Center, Aquarium, Inner Harbor Marina, and the stadiums all brought new life to downtown.

But, it has been pointed out that all this apparent good came at a price: It set Baltimore on a path to financial ruin.  Much of the development was financed with Federal Funds and the rest was praised as “public-private partnerships”.  Those partnerships had troubling details. The inner harbor pavilions were built on City Owned property.  Abandoned and dilapidated warehouses were demolished and improvements to the land and shoreline were made at City Expense. To provide the “public” portion of the partnership funding, Schaeffer sold city buildings and properties and leased them back from their new owners creating long term expenses. To entice the “Private” funding, the land for the Inner Harbor development projects was leased for $1/year and tax concessions were given.  In addition, bonds were issued passing the cost on to then unborn taxpayers. It would probably take a lifetime of forensic accounting to unravel the real costs.  Worse, In the years since, multiple city officials and contractors have been convicted of contracting violations, overcharging, and what has lately been known as ‘crony capitalism’. 

Knowing those details would not change the facts today.  Don Schaeffer’s dream of revitalizing his beloved Baltimore became a nightmare after his death.  His good intentions were subverted by corrupt bureaucrats and well-connected contractors.  The Inner Harbor redevelopment did not fix the crime, drugs, and poverty in the eastern, western, and southern neighborhoods.  It did not improve the quality of education or improve the safety in Baltimore’s schools.  It created some hospitality jobs but those were few compared to the loss of Bethlehem Steel, McCormick Spice, the Downtown shopping district, and countless other businesses and professionals who fled to the suburbs to avoid the rising taxes, crime, and vandalism, taking their jobs with them. Landlords depreciated and abandoned their properties. Fifty years of spending has produced no improvement for what’s left of Baltimore’s residents.

Fifty years of spending has produced no improvement for what’s left of Baltimore’s residents.

Ken Frederic, August 11, 2019

Maine has problems strikingly like Baltimore’s and politicians offering ‘solutions’ rooted in spend now and tax tomorrow strategies, not for Shaeffer’s shiny new buildings but for expanding government programs that hide rather than address real issues.  Like the Inner Harbor, these may feel good now, but they are the foundation for future ruin. The question for the reader is: When and where has government ever created a lasting solution for the problems that arise from economic decline and the associated anger, poverty, crime, dependency, broken families, and failed education?  The solutions will not be borrowing and spending money to paint over symptoms unless Baltimore’s dismal results are acceptable. It was not racism, hatred, or oppression that created Baltimore’s problems, so it should take more than assertion to convince anyone that solutions will come from those who loudly proclaim the symptoms and blame others for them.

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