10 Visions To Change Baltimore (for the Better!)

It's a new year, so our thoughts are naturally turning to the future. And despite the economic downturn felt here and elsewhere, things are looking pretty bright in Charm City.

It's a new year, so our thoughts are naturally turning to the future. And despite the economic downturn felt here and elsewhere, things are looking pretty bright in Charm City. The thing we're most excited about? The infusion of fresh ideas, both from newcomers and mainstays alike—everyone, it seems, has a stake in the future of Baltimore. What are the best and boldest of those ideas? We went in search of 10 of them, and found them in fields as diverse as senior care, social media, and urban housing. Not all have been implemented yet (although some have), and a few are just in the dreaming stage—but we think they'll all ultimately have a positive impact on Baltimore. In the end, we like the idea of Baltimore as a place where you can think big and where such pie-in-the-sky concepts can be nurtured, indulged, and turned into reality.

EDUCATION

Teaching financial literacy to Maryland's youth
Status: Dreaming Stage

Ask a lot of Maryland teens how to read a bank statement, decipher the small print on a credit-card offer, or explain how credit scores are calculated, and you might get a blank stare. That's something Maryland comptroller Peter Franchot has tried to correct for three years, with a bill to implement a mandatory six-week financial-literacy course for the state's high-school seniors. The notion has gained support in various forms, but his bill to make that happen has stalled in the House of Delegates for the past two years. So this year he's pulling out all the stops—he's got a petition he expects to be signed by 10,000 citizens. And he's using a Washington Post op-ed, his own website, and several Facebook pages to drum up support for the idea.

Getting the blame from Franchot for resisting the change is the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), which has historically discouraged interference from the General Assembly on matters such as curriculum. "They've dug in their heels," he says, "largely because it's not their idea."

The concept has been percolating since 2009, when the Governor's task force on financial literacy instructed the MSDE to develop state standards for financial education that went into effect at the start of the 2011-12 school year. But it fell short in Franchot's eyes. Instead of being taught as a six-week standalone course, financial-literacy material is often woven into other classes, such as math or government.

"I appreciate the effort to embed financial literacy in the grades 6-12 curriculum," Franchot says. "Unfortunately, the national data has shown such an approach to be costly and almost completely ineffective."

"We're in a severe economic downturn," says Allen Cox, managing director for the nonprofit Maryland Coalition for Financial Literacy, "and every year that we don't graduate students who are financially literate, we're continuing the pattern of poor decision-making and poor money management. Without this knowledge, young adults are much more likely to make costly mistakes."

—Christine Stutz

DEVELOPMENT

Reinventing Hopkins Plaza
Status: Dreaming Stage

You've heard about all the million-dollar condos lining the harbor shore, filling with well-heeled new residents. But for all the new high-end development, Baltimore is still struggling with population loss. One solution? Do something dramatic in what might seem like an unlikely part of town and convert outdated commercial buildings into affordable apartments and condos. And Kirby Fowler has a grand plan to do just that.

For the president of the nonprofit Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, ground zero for this initiative has to be Hopkins Plaza and the architecturally passé monoliths that surround it. They include the former Mercantile Bank and Trust building and the now unused Morris A. Mechanic theatre. Towering 34 stories over both is the iconic 1929 former Baltimore Trust Co. building, with its distinctive copper top and night lighting, now only partially occupied by a Bank of America branch and a law firm.

The downtown is suffering an office-vacancy rate of somewhere around 20 percent overall, up from the pre-recession 12 percent, but vacancy rates in these older buildings are much higher. So conversion of the buildings into residential properties makes sense.

Fowler's economic development agency and the city are already in talks with the owners of the buildings to get such a plan moving forward, and it's a big part of Downtown Partnership's strategic plan for the next year. "Our vision is for 100,000-square-feet of retail and office space, and 30 stories of residences in the old Mechanic Theatre," says Fowler.

"Everything around the plaza is doing well, so I see 2012 as a chance to relight the fire and bring those buildings back to productive use. In fact, if even one of the buildings could be converted, it would be transformational."

—Ken Iglehart

RETIREMENT

Using the power of networking to keep seniors in their own homes
Status: Underway

You're getting on in years, and little things—driving, shopping, housecleaning—are increasingly challenging. Even changing a lightbulb can be a stretch. But you don't want to leave the home you've lived in for decades. The new answer for thousands, including those with disabilities, is an aging-at-home concept called "the village," a network of services that is finally in Baltimore.

Modeled after a program started by residents in Boston's upscale Beacon Hill neighborhood, the nonprofit Village at Home serves as an alternative to nursing homes or assisted-living centers. After three years of planning, the nation's 67th such village started offering services last November. Its volunteers provide dues-paying members free and low-cost services that include transportation, help with bill-paying and paperwork, errands, home and garden maintenance, meal delivery, and social and cultural activities—even help with e-mail and electronics.

How much demand is there? Time will tell, but when The New York Times wrote a story about the fledgling Beacon Hill program five years ago, the nonprofit was overwhelmed with 3,000 phone calls.

Serving neighborhoods stretching from Cedarcroft west to Mt. Washington and from Tuscany-Canterbury to Ruxton, Baltimore's village is overseen by a high-powered board that includes a physician, a retired foreign service officer, and former Schmoke-administration housing commissioner Robert Hearn.

"In these difficult economic times, Village at Home is a wonderfully cost-effective alternative to a retirement community," says member Joan Bromberg, 82, who lives in Mt. Washington. "It's a godsend to me, helping me live at home and still feel connected."

—KI

TRAVEL

Building a better BWI
Status: Coming Soon 

You know that sinking feeling you get when you learn you can’t get somewhere without flying out of Dulles, Reagan, or Philly? That’s because you’re dreadfully spoiled: Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International is arguably one of the easiest airports in the world to deal with. This is no Dallas International or London Heathrow nightmare we’re talking about, with their confusing rail lines linking multiple buildings miles apart. It’s no wonder that in 2010, BWI was ranked as the best airport of its size in the world by the Airports Council International. But all that user-friendliness has spurred enormous growth in the number of passengers rolling their Samsonites through the airport—2010 was a record year for BWI, with 21.9 million travelers. And if something isn’t done soon, what BWI executive director Paul J. Wiedefeld calls “the easy-come, easy-go airport” will be but a memory. Which is why the Maryland Aviation Administration is rolling out a grand new $100-million expansion plan that will reinvent by 2013 the central part of the state-owned airport, allowing passengers to move among Concourses A, B, and C without having to pass through security a second time. To thin the crowds during busy periods, it would also replace a narrow checkpoint in Concourse C with a much larger, nine-lane one, as well as making room for larger, more-advanced imaging machines that the federal security people now consider standard technology. Though some industry experts think BWI is focusing too much on Southwest Airlines, the airport’s biggest tenant by far, and not enough on the lightly used international concourse, there’s no question it’ll make travel easier for the domestic passengers. And when it comes to BWI, we can definitely get behind a rallying cry of “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” —KI

COMMUNITY

Getting art students to help distribute fresh produce to the inner city
Status: Underway

Growing fresh vegetables for low-income residents is one thing. Getting the produce from the garden to the plate is another. But with the help of students from Maryland Institute College of Art’s (MICA) nascent Center for Design Practice, a nonprofit called Real Food Farm has found a way to deliver its goods to the folks in the inner city. After Real Food Farm—which grows food on six acres in Clifton Park—purchased a former newspaper-delivery truck, MICA students pitched in to turn it into a produce stand on wheels. The Center for Design Practice was established in 2007 as a way for students to “partner with outside organizations to address a specific social issue,” says director Mike Weikert. Knowing that access to fresh, healthy foods is an issue in many depressed neighborhoods, students approached Real Food Farm. They worked at the farm and then put their art skills to work for the cause, helping to design marketing materials, including a revamped logo, brochures, shopping bags, and bumper stickers to help promote it, says Weikert. In the process, he says, “The big idea emerged that it would be more effective to take the food to the people. It came out of the history of arabbers, combined with the food-truck craze.” “The partnership with MICA is a natural fit,” says former Real Food Farm outreach coordinator Maya Kosok. “The students are using art for social change, and doing it respectfully and responsibly.” —MT

CONSTRUCTION

Building a bridge between Federal Hill and the Harbor
Status: Dreaming Stage

Imagine standing on the western shore of the harbor, let’s say at Pier 6, on a rainy weekday at 9 a.m. and looking over toward Federal Hill. Looks pretty close, right?

Think again: You can just about spit that far, but try driving there and back at rush hour and you could misplace an hour of your life. In fact, if you’re in a car, it’s like two separate worlds when the crosstown traffic is bad. (Read: “Almost always.”) But the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) wants to fix that.

In a bid to attract more downtown residents—no, it’s not about tourists all the time—the downtown think-tank has unveiled three plans to reinvent Rash Field, the orphaned space between the Maryland Science Center and the waterfront Rusty Scupper restaurant. One of three options—designed by Baltimore architectural firm Ayers Saint Gross—calls for a park that GBC president Donald Fry says would rival other similar-sized urban parks in cities such as New York, Seattle, or Washington, D.C., incorporating an open green area, a large playground, athletic fields, and performance space. That sounds cool, but how do we western-shore folk get there?

You walk over the water, of course.

Architect Adam Gross envisions a soaring pedestrian bridge across the harbor from Rash Field to Pier 5. Modeled after similar bridges in Europe, it would open to enable large ships to pass into the Inner Harbor.

“Right now, when you get to the edge of Rash Field, there’s the Rusty Scupper, the Visionary Art Museum, and you’re at a dead end—you have to turn and walk back,” says Gross. “This would allow there to be a 1.5-mile loop around the whole harbor and would make a stronger connection to Harbor East.”

So you people with gephyrophobia (that’s fear of bridges, natch) can still take the bus. We’ll be waiting for you at Mother’s.—KI

TECHNOLOGY

Designing an integrated network of personal medical data for Hopkins and beyond
Status: In Progress

You can still find doctor’s offices with antiquated paper files, of course, but through the years, most medical records have been computerized. However, for a physician trying to solve a medical mystery, there’s still a problem: Most of those databases don’t talk to each other. And Stephanie Reel, the 60-year-old vice president for information services at Johns Hopkins Medicine, wants to change all that. Her vision is to create a computerized, integrated medical-records system that is nationally networked. But she’ll have to take it one step at a time: Today, the Hopkins medical empire; tomorrow, the world.

Since July, Reel’s 150-member team has been working with Wisconsin-based software company Epic on a $200-million-plus, five-year project to standardize and integrate medical records for the system’s six hospitals and assorted outpatient centers, which employ 5,080 physicians and as many nurses treating 3.2 million patients a year.

“There’s a lot of computerized medical-record information available today, of course, but it’s not integrated and it’s no trivial matter to find what you need,” says Reel.

“This is far more ambitious than what governments are trying to push,” says Reel, “and it will make Hopkins a leader in clinical integration.”

What’s that going to mean in the future? While visiting your Aunt Tilly in Kansas, the metal plate in your head from that old bungee-jumping mishap starts hurting again and you check into the local ER.

You sign a permission form, the internist clicks away on a keyboard, and all your records pop up on the screen, from routine visits to your primary physician to the CAT scans, X-rays, and surgical records from your hospital back home.

And, for however much grief that metal plate causes you at airport security, Reel’s new system will tell you that last time, way back in 2008, two aspirin worked just fine. —KI

ARTS

Creating a downtown arts collective
Status: Underway

From the cryptic sign that reads “EMP” in letters made from scrap wood, passersby might infer that a secret club has moved into the newly renovated shoe factory on Redwood Street in West Baltimore. So, we need the secret password to get in, right?

Not this time: It’s actually an art gallery, and unlike a secret club, this one is distinguished not by exclusivity, but by the wide range of artists and artwork it seeks to include. The gallery, which opened in early October, was launched by the EMP Collective, a group of visual artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, and actors that formed in 2010. The group intends for EMP to serve as a space where artists of different backgrounds and artistic mediums can collaborate and show their work.

The multi-use venue is comprised of a rotating art gallery for developing artists that doubles as a rehearsal and performance space for theatrical and musical events, experimental collaboration, writing workshops, and film screenings.

“We are not a space for one specific medium,” says EMP artistic director Carly Bales. “At all times, we try to cross-pollinate the talents of artists we work with into many different projects. We want to make EMP an established incubator for experimentation and artistic growth.”

In addition to fostering collaboration among artists, the collective hopes to help “light up their new home and the surrounding neighborhood with life and activity,” Bales says. The collective, which achieved its nonprofit status last August, received a $10,000 grant from the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore (DPOB) as part of the Operation Storefront program, which matches individuals and groups seeking space with first-floor storefronts in an effort to bring businesses and pedestrians back downtown.

Dovetailing with the goal of Operation Storefront, the collective hopes to make the gallery accessible to the community. “It’s important for us to help in the downtown effort to increase foot traffic and activity in our area and make the neighborhood a more welcoming and inviting destination,” Bales says. —KA

SOCIAL MEDIA

Activating a homegrown twist on Facebook
Status: Underway

When social media first came on the scene around 2004, marketers scrambled to find ways to use platforms like Twitter and Facebook to strengthen brands and drive consumer behavior. Suddenly, the average person had the ability to instantly broadcast opinions to a group of followers, diluting the power of traditional marketing techniques.

Now, a Baltimore company has developed a way to leverage the power of social networks so organizations can get the word out to a highly selective audience. SocialToaster, the brainchild of Brian Razzaque and his team at Vision Multimedia Technologies (VMT), enlists an organization’s supporters to promote the cause to their own social networks, taking “word of mouth” to a whole new level.

“The Holy Grail of social media is how to reach an audience you don’t have a direct relationship with,” says Razzaque, 33. “We figure out how to get your content in front of people you don’t know.”

Individuals can sign up to be ambassadors for the organization and share content on their behalf, with the option to decline sharing content they don’t like. Now in its third year of business, SocialToaster is being used by organizations as diverse as The Johns Hopkins University, the Baltimore Ravens, and Hair Cuttery to engage consumers and strengthen brand loyalty.

Just a few weeks after launching the program for the Detroit Lions, Razzaque says, the football team expanded its network reach to 819,000 people by signing up 2,000 ambassadors. The Baltimore realty firm Yerman Witman Gaines & Conklin used SocialToaster to draw more than 3,700 new visitors to its website in the first four-month period.

Meanwhile, SocialToaster executives have been busy raising capital to grow the two-year-old business, which has a patent pending. An initial round of angel funding has netted $1 million, and an additional $2 million in venture capital is expected by this summer, says Razzaque.

Says Michelle Andres, vice president of digital media for the Ravens, “SocialToaster was the next logical step in our social media strategy.” —CS

ENERGY

Providing solar energy for all in Baltimore
Status: In Progress

Imagine a world where fossil fuels are only used in antique cars, hydroelectric dams are dismantled for fish migration, and nuclear power as a power source has gone the way of the dodo, deemed too hot to handle by Fukushima phobia. It’s a world powered, instead, by the rays of Mother Earth’s own star—the sun—and a pinch of wind. But it’s not so make-believe anymore: Headlines recently ballyhooed the startup of a 7.5-megawatt solar generating station built by our very own Constellation Energy Group in Vineland, NJ, which will produce enough to power about 873 homes. Impressive, you think? Well, plug into this: The company just finished another solar plant in Emmittsburg, costing $60 million, that turns out 16 megawatts powering 1,900 homes. You want wind power? They’ve got that, too: And a new 70-megawatt wind-generation plant in Garrett County will meet the energy needs of 23,000 homes. Carbon emissions saved? In the case of the Emmittsburg plant, as an example, the equivalent of those produced by 2,975 automobiles annually. In all, Constellation is using or completing renewable-energy plants to produce more than 100 megawatts nationally, often with no upfront costs for the businesses, neighborhoods, or local governments in each location. Okay, sure, cynics would say this is a Fortune 500 company doing the right thing for the wrong reason: They’d point out that utilities would much rather push conservation than build expensive new power plants. That way, they can make their existing plants stretch the juice further, save money, and look like friends of the planet. From the boardroom window, what’s not to like? So, let’s ask the stockholders: Is this a legitimate new revenue source, a case of buckling under to a government mandate like Maryland’s that aims to achieve 20 percent renewable energy by 2020, or just because those Constellation folks are oh-so green? Their answer? A bit of all three, actually. But Mother Earth is loving it.—KI

Issue date: January, 2012
12 issues for $18!