Center Maryland: Light and a turning point for Baltimore

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Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on February 10, 2016.

By Donald C. Fry

Winter’s gloom will eventually give way to spring in the region, and soon afterward another turning point could be in the cards for Baltimore.

In just about six weeks, a switch will be thrown and the Inner Harbor waterfront will light up the night in a way no U.S. city has seen before when the inaugural Light City Baltimore festival commences.

If you haven’t heard of this upcoming week-long event, which runs from March 28 to April 3, it’s shaping up to be quite the showstopper with 28 dramatic light and art displays along a waterfront path, concerts, neighborhood attractions, an innovation conference, and more. Businesses, from restaurants to shops and hotels, should see an economic boost from the anticipated visitor traffic.

While the planned light displays, music and artists have gotten much of the news coverage, the big story line could be how this home-grown festival hits the reset button for Baltimore and serves to reshape its image regionally, nationally and even internationally.

That image took it on the chin, of course, with national news coverage of the civil unrest that unfolded in parts of the city last spring after the tragic death of Freddie Gray and a subsequent spike in homicides. The events raised anew old questions about economic inequality, public safety and police-community relations in Baltimore – much of which was explored by local and national media, adding weight to the negative image.

All of this was a tough blow to the city’s reputation.

While we can’t disregard the events of the spring and the serious questions that have been raised, the national conversation about Baltimore seemed to have gotten out of balance. Many leaders in the local business, nonprofit and civic communities, including at the Greater Baltimore Committee, have earnestly searched for ways to rebalance the conversation.

Anyone who knows Baltimore can tell you that the city has many positive stories to tell. It has a vibrant home-grown restaurant and culinary scene, thriving arts and creative community, world-class research institutions, vibrant medical and technology industries, and a strong emerging innovation and entrepreneurial business sector. Many residents and business owners hold their civic pride dear, despite the ups and downs.

Fortunately Light City holds the potential to – pardon the pun – shine a bright light on all of this and more for the world, the nation and those in the Greater Baltimore region not familiar with the many positive trends and transformations underway.

Time will tell, but the planned light displays, art and other attractions should generate their share of national media coverage. Social media should buzz coast to coast with upbeat comments about Light City Baltimore. CNN has already taken notice, reporting that the festival is one of the top “16 intriguing things to see and do in the U.S. in 2016.”

All in all, the news coverage and the conversations the festival sparks at dinner tables and boardrooms should serve to balance the conversation about Baltimore and showcase it as the economic engine and hub for creativity, ideas and innovation that it is.

But what is also compelling about Light City and its promise is how the entire festival has been conceived, supported and planned organically right in Baltimore.

Some big promoter didn’t swoop into town with a pre-packaged event, hoping to make a lot of money and then pack up and leave when it’s over. No. Light City Baltimore is the brainchild of a Baltimore couple, Brooke Hall and Justin Allen. The “founding visionaries,” as they have been dubbed, run a creative agency in the city, What Works Studio.

Hall and Allen had seen photographs of a light festival in Sydney, Australia, and began discussing how something along the same lines with a hometown feel and local acts could be a good fit – and hit – for Baltimore.

They brought the idea to The Abell Foundation, which funded a visit from the Sydney, Australia event producer. The idea was further promoted to the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, which liked the concept and reached out to the local business community for support. Baltimore Gas & Electric, which was gearing up to celebrate its 200th Anniversary, quickly embraced the idea and signed on to be the lead corporate sponsor – a real win for the festival and the city.

The stage was set and soon a number of other local companies and organizations also signed on to sponsor the inaugural Light City Baltimore festival.

As with any inaugural event, organizers aren’t sure how many visitors it will attract. But they smartly planned it during spring break week for many local public schools, a time when families throughout the Baltimore region are able to experience something new and exciting.  And with hope building that the festival emerges as an annual event with national recognition like South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, the dates are already set for 2017 – March 30 to April 9.

Regardless of this year’s turnout, ownership of the idea, support and planning is thankfully planted right where it belongs – Baltimore. And that speaks volumes to anyone who will listen that Baltimore’s gritty old spirit never went down for the count.

That in of itself may be the best story told when Baltimore turns on the lights this spring for all to see.

Don Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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