Opinion

Will there be any local flavor left?

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Opinion,Antero Pietila

A few years from now, when Baltimore re-emerges from economic troubles, will we recognize the city? Just last week an outsider acquired Provident Bank. Meanwhile, Harborplace, the symbol of Baltimore's 1980s Inner Harbor renaissance, was put on the block.

Provident was a truly important institution, a key player in turning Baltimore into a homeowner town. Organized in 1886 in the wake of one of the nation's worst economic crises up to that time, it survived the Great Depression, but not the excesses of our time. Provident's $401 million price indicates that even a solid financial institution fetches astonishingly little money these days.

Harborplace, which is being offered for sale in tandem with the Gallery minimall, may also go for a bargain price, depending on the desperation of its debt-burdened owner. Since that owner, General Growth Properties, did not comment beyond press releases, I put the question to David Cordish, a rival developer who owns the Powerplant and other entertainment business in the harbor: "What are you thoughts on Harborplace?"

"It has more debt on it than the property's worth. We could do a lot with it, and boy it needs a lot," he wrote from his BlackBerry. Stay tuned.

Buyers will eventually emerge for Harborplace and such other iconic waterfront festival marketplace as Faneuil Hall in Boston and the South Sea Seaport in Manhattan, which are also being unloaded. The only question is how soon will they be sold and at what price. Bottom fishers know that General Growth, a leading national mall operator, is drowning in billions of dollars of debt coming due soon. Those who wait may be rewarded.

I don't personally care for what Harborplace and the Gallery have become, but the important thing to remember is that they did not fail. They generated $522 per square foot in sales for the 12 months ended Sept. 30. That's not quite as much as Faneuil Hall and the South Street Seaport did, but it is still a respectable amount of cash.

If you weren't in Baltimore in 1980, you have no idea what a difference the opening of Harborplace made. For a city that had been wallowing in a rut since the destructive 1968 riots, the sight of millions of visitors streaming to the Inner Harbor provided much-needed uplift and validation.

Those were exciting times. Preceding Harborplace were a number of city fairs, each held at a location targeted for redevelopment. Long-neglected ethnic communities stepped up to the plate, organizing well-attended festivals each summer weekend. Baltimore was a grimy place, but it was fun. Some people were so upbeat they flew kites in parks.

Harborplace initially combined a fish and vegetable market (downstairs in the Light Street pavilion) with restaurants and shops. Colorful pushcarts peddled Baltimore-themed merchandise. There were plenty of crabs and other quirky memorabilia celebrating the Queen City of the Patapsco drainage basin.

That incarnation of Harborplace was wonderful as long as it lasted. But it was also destructive. In recruiting local tenants, Harborplace went after some successful neighborhood entrepreneurs. My favorite was a wonderfully fragrant spice emporium.

Harborplace scouts spotted the thriving shop in a narrow row house in South Baltimore. It had done well in what today would be called Federal Hill, but was not in those days. Transplanted to Harborplace, the store struggled. When it went out of business for good, Baltimore lost one fine store.

The spice store was not the only casualty. As retailing formats kept changing in a quest for higher and higher sales revenues, chains took the place of whimsical local entrepreneurs. Harborplace became just another mall.

If Harborplace's valuation returns to realistic levels, perhaps there is new hope for local flavor. If we still have any left by then.

Antero Pietila is writing a book about how bigotry shaped Baltimore between 1910 and 1975. His e-mail address is hap5905@hotmail.com.

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