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Downtown Partnership President Says Baltimore 'Must Do Better'

Downtown Partnership of Baltimore President Shelonda Stokes knows better than most the toll violent crime takes on the city’s residents, economy and reputation. 

Downtown Partnership of Baltimore President Shelonda Stokes during the organization's annual meeting Thursday, Sept. 29.

She was leaving an interview with the Urban Land Institute in January excited that the agency’s consultants spent the meeting raving about Baltimore’s assets and potential. She said it was one of the best days of her life.

As she left the meeting, her phone rang. It was her sister delivering horrifying news. News that is delivered to the families of more than 300 people in Baltimore each year. Her brother, James Blue III, the husband of a Baltimore police officer, was fatally shot on a city street. 

Stokes, the day after what would’ve been her brother’s 44th birthday, made her case to the region’s most prominent business leaders that better days lie ahead for Charm City. 

“You talk about ebbs and flows. But that’s our city, and I still love our city,” Stokes said Thursday night while addressing the partnership’s annual meeting at the Center Club. “That’s why Baltimore, we must do better. We can do better, and we are doing better.”

Public safety has remained a top concern for downtown businesses and commercial property owners, and Baltimore’s traditional Central Business District has struggled with persistently high office vacancy and retail vacancies in recent decades. To combat those trends, downtown has tried to brand itself as a live-work-play community to varying degrees of success.

According to the partnership’s 2022 State of Downtown report, which included data for 2021, employment in the district grew from 117,970 jobs in 2020 to 125,246 jobs last year. 

Office vacancies fell from more than 23% in 2020 to just under 20% in 2021. The Central Business District, according to Cushman & Wakefield’s second-quarter 2022 Market Beat report, “continued to see the highest average concessions and lowest average starting rents in the market.”

Baltimore's Inner Harbor, seen from 100 Light St.

The number of residents living downtown narrowly increased year-over-year by less than 150 residents in 2021, but the Downtown Partnership hasn’t produced a detailed housing study to assess the demand for residences since 2017.

The data from partnership reports is also gathered from a 1-mile radius around Pratt and Light streets and includes thriving neighborhoods, such as Federal Hill and Harbor East, generally not considered part of the Central Business District.

However, Stokes touted the more than $4B in private investment being made within that mile radius of Pratt and Light streets. She extolled a $250M renovation of the Baltimore Arena — by Oak View Group in partnership with NBA star Kevin Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures investment firm — that’s set to finish in February in time to host the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament.

She also cited $166M in city, state and federal government funds coming downtown as a reason for optimism. Those funds will support projects ranging from facade improvements to helping so-called “squeegee kids,” who stand on corners and wash car windows for spare change and who on occasion have become involved in violent and deadly altercations with motorists. 

In what she called a topic of utmost importance to those at the meeting, Stokes also said crime downtown is trending lower. At the same time, she acknowledged there’s still a tremendous amount of work to make residents and visitors feel safe downtown. 

Downtown Partnership is coordinating with the Baltimore Police Department, the Maryland Transportation Authority Police and the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s police, to reduce crime. The partnership has also hired armed and unarmed security guards.

“We don't have all the answers, but we're going to keep pushing,” Stokes said. “I am an engineer by degree, and this thing is solvable.” 

John Hermann, a vice president of asset leasing and management at Corporate Office Properties Trust, said at Thursday's event COPT is among those that believe in Stokes' vision and efforts. 

His firm, which hosted Downtown Partnership’s annual meeting, purchased 100 Light St. in 2015. Over the last several years, he said, the company has invested more than $20M to reposition the building as “the new center of energy in the heart of the CBD.”   

“Why would COPT make such investments in a market that is undoubtedly struggling? I think the answer is obvious,” Hermann said. “These investments will make this iconic building … something to be seen.”

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott attended the meeting and called downtown the “bright light of Baltimore’s renaissance” and its fastest-growing residential neighborhood. The Central Business District, he said, is in the process of transforming into a thriving hub for minority- and women-owned businesses.  

“It is truly the beating heart of our city’s economy,” Scott said.