Harboring Tourism

Reinvesting in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor


Baltimore’s Inner Harbor has an interesting history.

Having functioned as a major U.S. seaport until the mid-20th century, the city of Baltimore began experiencing economic woes as its Inner Harbor (along with many of the city’s other once-thriving ports) became deserted thanks to the industrialization of large-scale commodity transportation.

By the 1950’s, the harbor sat largely unused and much of its permanent wooden structure fell victim to rotting and degradation. With the disappearance of the shipping traffic which had previously warranted the consistent upkeep of the harbor’s warehouses and piers, the city of Baltimore razed much of the property’s remaining structures and set in motion an effort to convert the area into open-aired parkland for public recreational utility.

Over the course of the following decade, the entire waterfront area experienced a commercial redevelopment the likes of which few American cities had ever observed. With the construction of office buildings, hotels, commercial food establishments, entertainment venues, and more, the city was able to transform the harbor into an epicenter of city-wide economic success which, even today, serves as an international model for urban revitalization.

The Problem

Despite remaining the definitive success-story and serving to prove the benefits and importance of economic development throughout urban America, a measurable risk always lingers that without the necessary maintenance and preservation efforts, the area could once more find itself on a track to desolation.

As was proven during the harbor’s time as an active port, and by many untreated areas throughout cities across the globe, without the resources to keep functioning spaces attractive to tourists and appealing to inhabitants, locations can easily (and quickly) become mere memories of successes of the past while turning into sources of present struggle.

The Inner Harbor now faces a new challenge: making a case for supporting reinvestment.

Having gone largely unchanged for nearly 40 years (albeit profitable ones), the area is inarguably experiencing the effects of hosting millions of visitors annually and is in need of numerous infrastructural updates. With the Promenade in need of brick replacement due to deterioration; the Amphitheatre currently failing to meet ADA requirements thanks to the frequency with which it floods; and the assortment of bulkheads, pilings, and electrical systems in need of repair work due to corrosion from rising sea levels, the condition of Baltimore’s most famous tourist attraction is a bit dicey.

So, the Inner Harbor now faces a new challenge: making a case for supporting reinvestment. Without sufficient buy-in from the public and its collective benefactors, the attention and monetary support needed to solidify the area’s status as the primary driver of city-wide tourism could disappear.

Developers know how important proactive measures are in situations like these.

The Solution

In order to demonstrate the importance of reinvestment in the Inner Harbor by its funders, corporate partners, sponsors, and grantors, the Waterfront Partnership knew it would first need to demonstrate the value of the harbor itself.

By quantifying the dollars of economic activity that the Inner Harbor stimulates for the city of Baltimore each year, the Waterfront Partnership, the nonprofit which oversees all waterfront-related development efforts, hoped to make the need to invest in its reinvigoration obvious.

So, the partnership commissioned an economic impact analysis aimed at doing just that: putting into cold, hard numbers exactly how big of an economic contributor the harbor was to the entire city of Baltimore. To perform the actual impact analysis, the Waterfront Partnership and the Maryland Economic Development Corporation called upon HR&A Advisors, Inc., a leading real estate, economic development, and public policy consulting firm based in New York City. Having worked with a myriad of organizations in the past (including local public agencies, civic groups, private companies, and more) with the goal of gaining support for the revitalization of waterfront spaces across the country, they emerged as the easy choice to handle the task.

To do so, HR&A used a technique called input-output modeling to illustrate the value of the Inner Harbor as a major tourist draw and economic driver for both the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland. Input-output modeling is a widely practiced and accepted analytical method which uses specific historical knowledge of the economic activity within regions and industries to quantify the effects of new changes in production throughout them. For instance, if an area experiences an influx of spending thanks to a large construction project, or experiences an increase in the number of jobs in a region thanks to a large corporation relocating to the area, the input-output method can measure the effects which that economy might expect to observe.

To perform this type of analysis, HR&A used economic impact data and an input-output modeling software from IMPLAN. IMPLAN is the most reputable tool in the world when it comes to input-output modeling. For over 25 years, IMPLAN has built its reputation in data accuracy and operational transparency. So, findings with the IMPLAN name attached to them are widely considered the truest and most trusted. Naturally, to ensure that its findings and its conclusions were as powerful and influential as possible, HR&A utilized IMPLAN data and IMPLAN’s analytical software tool to carry out the process. Compiling input metrics from a large assembly of previous studies, published survey figures, collected employment information, and more, IMPLAN was able to quantify the direct, indirect, and induced effects of all the spending that the Inner Harbor generates and stimulates each year.

The Results

The study’s headline findings were that in 2012, tourism attributable specifically to the Inner Harbor generated:

Based on its objective findings, the study found that Baltimore’s Inner Harbor plays a pivotal role in driving economic activity in the area as a valuable tourist attraction which draws nearly 25 million visitors each year. If the study was commissioned in order to prove to the harbor’s benefactors why it was worth reinvesting in, it certainly seemed to have uncovered the evidence it needed. But…did it work?

The Takeaway

The metrics revealed by the study are one thing. And while they’re certainly interesting, the real value in this story is whether or not the Inner Harbor’s revitalization effort benefitted from the study’s findings. So, did it?… You could say that.

In late 2013, the Waterfront Partnership made public its commissioned study alongside its release of the “Baltimore Inner Harbor 2.0” proposal. Inner Harbor 2.0 outlines a massive revitalization project which includes several large new construction efforts and renovations efforts to existing structure and land space. The largest element of the project is the construction of a new pedestrian bridge across the harbor’s major channel, connecting two separated regions of the harbor (Harbor East and Federal Hill) and transforming a longtime “horseshoe” portion of its layout into a walkable loop. Regarding renovations, the plan calls for the transformation of Rash Field, a current outdoor recreational space, into a grassy park. Other main attractions to be added include a kayak launch, a bike share program, and an urban beach which is slated to include a floating swimming pool.

With publication of the commissioned economic impact study’s findings supporting the necessity of the project, the Inner Harbor 2.0 plan began receiving substantial news media attention.

The Baltimore Business Journal ran the headline, “Inner Harbor Redevelopment Plan Shows Vision for Next 20-Plus Years”, while the Annapolis Patch’s headline asked the question, “Is Baltimore’s Inner Harbor Due for a Facelift?”. With these, and additional news outlets, bringing attention to both the scope and importance of the effort, the Waterfront Partnership & co.’s project seemed to begin picking up steam almost immediately.

Plus, with public confidence in their cause and proposal, contributing members of the published redesign were outspoken about their excitement. On the inclusiveness of the whole effort, Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership commented, “Over the last several years there have been smaller plans developed. Each of them by themselves were interesting, but didn’t add up to a comprehensive and common vision, so that’s what we really wanted to achieve…to take the best of all these plans, knit them together and have a common vision between stakeholders, private entities and city government so we could all work together toward the same goals.”

Then-Baltimore mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, also spoke of the plan saying it would create a “greener and softer” Inner Harbor, akin to that of the original development. Commenting on the inviting nature of the original Inner Harbor development, she said, “As a young person, I thought it was for me. With Inner Harbor 2.0, we’re getting back to that feeling.”

Donald C. Fry, CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said of the effort, “Forty years ago when the harbor was first developed, we were clearly the pinnacle of any urban waterfront development. Since that time we’ve somewhat let that lapse and we’ve let other people exceed us, so it’s important for us to get back to that highest standard.” With the shared efforts of the Waterfront Partnership, the Greater Baltimore Committee, their collective partners, consulting from HR&A, economic impact analysis from IMPLAN, support from local government, attention from popular news media, and the necessary funding from enthusiastic benefactors, Baltimore aims to spend the coming years writing a truly unprecedented second chapter in the Inner Harbor’s comeback story.