Black tourist attractions seek more prominent role in Baltimore

City Paper

On April 29, two days after the biggest spasm of violence following the death of Freddie Gray, the City Council’s taxation, finance, and economic development committee took testimony about “Establishing a Baltimore City African American Business, Tourism, Entertainment & Heritage Preservation Commission.”

At issue at the City Council hearing was the way Visit Baltimore, the main government-sponsored tourism booster, markets Baltimore to African-Americans. Echoing a case he has made for years, Lou Fields, President of Baltimore Black Heritage Tours Inc., said Visit Baltimore doesn’t understand the African-American market well enough to maximize its effort. In denying this, Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, may have bolstered Fields’ point.

“Thirty percent of our major [events] campaign is dedicated to the diversity market,” Noonan told the committee, which on this day consisted only of Chairman Carl Stokes (12th District) and Helen Holton (8th District). “And if you add in our general marketing, the total is closer to—I think in fact it’s more than—40 percent.”

Holton asked Noonan Visit Baltimore’s definition of diversity.

“Ah, African-American, LGBT, Hispanic, Asian, Native-American, and women-owned—” Noonan began. Then he paused and turned to a female aide sitting behind him: “Is it women too?”

Visit Baltimore estimates that Baltimore’s tourism economy is worth $3 billion to $5 billion a year. That puts it in the same class as the Port of Baltimore.

At the heart of this is not just a battle over spoils—the small pot of public money that goes to promote the city to the rest of the world—it is a battle about how Baltimore defines and presents itself to the wider world. “That job just got way harder,” Noonan said, referring to the riots of two nights before.

The people who have the power to define the city are the white people. The white people in the room seem to think they’re doing just fine promoting African-American interests.

Creating a new commission to focus only on promoting the city’s African-American heritage and tourism “would not be efficient or cost-effective,” the city’s budget director, Andrew Kleine, testified.

But with all the money already dedicated to promoting Baltimore to the “diversity market” (and it would amount to about $7 million, if Kleine’s breakdown of the city’s contribution to Visit Baltimore is right), there are very few African-American-owned attractions. There are no downtown hotels and very few restaurants owned by African-Americans in a city that is nearly two-thirds black.

We have lots of tourism in the city, Fields said, but black people “get very little from it other than low-wage poverty jobs.”

Fields contrasted the lack of African-American-owned tourism-related businesses with the millions of dollars city and state taxpayers pour into the city’s main cultural attractions each year. He cited the Six-Year-Capital Program of the city’s budget, which earmarks $150,000 for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, $750,000 for the Constellation, $800,000 for the National Aquarium’s Chesapeake Bay Exhibit, $300,000 for the Science Center, over $1 million for the Everyman Theatre, $1.1 million for the Lyric Opera House building, and page after page of other expenditures that benefit institutions dominated and controlled by white people.

Joanne Martin, who co-founded and operates the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum on North Avenue (and is pressing a $75 million expansion), said just paying her institution’s dues to Visit Baltimore can be a challenge after the summer season dies down in September. “They have to understand, we’ll pay it when we get to it,” she told the committee, adding that her museum is also obligated to belong to the National Association of African-American Museums. She suggested Visit Baltimore and the city create, or allow the creation of, a consortium of African-American attractions that could join and pay dues as one entity. “We bring 150,000 people to a neighborhood where they have no reason to come,” Martin said. “We need a voice that allows us to speak for ourselves.”

The decorum inside the council chambers contrasted with the scene outside, where college students heard fiery testimony about racial injustice and police “murder” of African-Americans. Here were African-American and white politicians, business people, and institutions arguing about money and the distribution of scarce resources. Yet race remained a subtext.

“I’m here not to attack them,” Fields told the committee. “I’m here to ask them to help us help them.”

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