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Business development / Ecosystem development / Technology

What can Baltimoreans expect from the downtown core in 2024?

As the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore celebrates its 40th year, its president shares her thoughts on Baltimore’s tech hub status and Harborplace.

Shelonda Stokes (second from left) with others at ribbon-cutting ceremony for the digital spectacular in Downtown Baltimore. (Courtesy Downtown Partnership of Baltimore)
Full disclosure: This article mentions Fearless, a Technical.ly Talent Builder client. That relationship had no impact on this report.

40 years

Long before a tech-enabled approach reached Baltimore’s downtown, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore (DPOB) focused on public safety, hospitality and transportation. Its goal? To contribute to downtown Baltimore’s overall well-being — likely factors in the flow of top tech firms making Downtown Baltimore their home over the years.

DPOB, established in 1983, looked back at its progress during a November 2023 annual meeting at the Baltimore Convention Center that also served as its 40th-anniversary celebration.

The organization hosted hundreds of attendees at the Baltimore Convention Center and provided an opportunity to honor individuals, businesses and initiatives that an email announcement said “doubled down on their commitment to Downtown Baltimore” in 2023.

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland received DPOB’s Leadership Award during the event. He and fellow Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s $2 million federal funding request notably supported organizations like B-360, which aims to use that funding to support a planned dirtbike campus project in Baltimore.

During the convening, Mayor Brandon Scott also unveiled an action plan in partnership with DPOB, Live Baltimore, Waterfront Partnership, Visit Baltimore and Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC). Downtown RISE aims to serve as a blueprint for the future of downtown Baltimore.

Read Mayor Scott’s coinciding Baltimore Sun op-ed about the project

Like the recently released five-year digital inclusion plan, Downtown RISE has its own focus areas: public safety and cleanliness, community and economic development, arts, culture, entertainment, placemaking and community and economic development. Each area includes strategic actions that might contribute to Baltimore’s vitality.

Dreaming beyond 40 years

In line with the recent renewal of the Baltimore Orioles and Maryland Stadium Authority’s lease agreement, as well as some of the resolutions set by community leaders in Baltimore, DPOB hopes to grow with Baltimore, its neighborhoods and its people. DPOB President Shelonda Stokes echoed a sentiment present in the organization’s annual report for 2023 while talking to Technical.ly: She believes in Baltimore now more than ever.

“The new [Orioles] agreement holds immense potential to fuel a transformative wave of economic growth throughout the Downtown corridor, marking a significant moment for our entire region, with Downtown Baltimore at its heart,” said Stokes

On the call with Technical.ly, Stokes said Baltimoreans should “dream big” when it comes to the city’s fortunes.

“I think that in order for us to get where we need to be and where we all want to be, we are going to have to dream big,” she said, adding: “If there’s any point in time that I see it coming, I see it coming right now. I see it with the convergence of the tech hub designation. I see it with the fact that Governor Moore is so focused on technology, like I see all of these things and in our organization, you know? We really want to make sure that we’re also bringing to the table the latest and greatest around what happens downtown.”

Stokes discussed her aim to improve downtown for professionals and those who might live there by making downtown Baltimore more “walkable and convenient”.

“You should be able to find whatever you want, wherever you want, that’s down here easily, right?” said Stokes.

She cited the projection of $6.5 billion in investment for Downtown’s “one-mile” stretch from 2018 to 2028. However, only $1.5 billion has been spent thus far, as reported during last year’s DPOB State of Baltimore event. Stokes also suggested improvements to a tech-enabled Baltimore inspired by models like Copenhagen, where sensors and smartphone data might optimize traffic patterns.

What’s next for Baltimore as a Tech Hub?

The deadline for Phase II of the US Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) Tech Hubs Program is Feb. 29, 2024. EDA representatives declined to speak ahead of the deadline while leadership at the Greater Baltimore Committee could not be reached for comment on what the consortium might do in preparation for the implementation grants. Stokes, who serves as a board member for the tech hub’s institutional cohort members BDC and Morgan State University, described the designation as “a true game changer.”

“We think about companies like Fearless, who are down here, Spark Baltimore, EcoMap, Baker Donelson has this Light of Baltimore incubator initiative,” said Stokes, who also thinks the designation might attract more businesses and founders. “We think, you know, it’s our role as conveners to ensure that we maximize this designation, right? That Baltimore lives up to its true potential and, at the end, you make downtown safe and hospitable and authentic [and] exciting and vibrant and a place that everybody really wants to be — because you can walk from one of our amazing assets to the next, and the next and the next and the next, and really feel good about it.”

Harborplace’s future

Plans for Harborplace — plans that have raised questions — were unveiled at the Baltimore Together Summit just a few short weeks before DPOB celebrated its 40th anniversary. Stokes shared her excitement about the plans to revitalize Baltimore’s Harborplace, which opened to the public in 1980.

“My job back then was cleaning, right?” she said. “My view of [Harborplace] from that time was so different, right?…I had to sweep the floors and clean the bathroom and you know, all of [those kinds of things]. And at a certain point, even in its old design, it felt so closed that you didn’t, you didn’t get the community feel of it.”

Stokes was nostalgic about the old Harborplace and specifically mentioned enjoyment of its old mainstays like The Fudgery. But she also looks forward to being able to “experience the water while you’re inside,” with plans for “expanded glass and walls” on the footprint of the newly reinvisioned Harborplace. Tech-centric tenants like Dope Nerds, a STEAM incubator are already slated to move in.

Companies: B-360 / Waterfront Partnership / Visit Baltimore / Baltimore Development Corporation / Downtown Partnership of Baltimore / City of Baltimore / U.S. Economic Development Administration
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