In a March 21 chat with the Washington Post‘s editorial board, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump offered his vision for how to turn around the fortunes of struggling cities like Baltimore: “economic zones.”  Here’s the relevant passage:

HIATT: So what would you do for Baltimore, let’s say.

TRUMP: Well, number one, I’d create economic zones. I’d create incentives for companies to move in.

This might be an innovative idea…were it still 1980. In fact, Baltimore has probably tried more types of “economic zones” than any other city and offers the most generous tax incentives in the country. They haven’t worked.

Today, the City of Baltimore alone already offers at least seven different types of special economic zones for business.  As best as I can tell, literally every square inch of the city is part of one special zone or another. These zones include the ultimate in bureaucratic recursion: enterprise ones within enterprise zones (so-called “focus areas”). The city and its quasi-public economic development entities also offer a wide range of incentives for business, from small grants to improve building facades to special tax breaks for grocery stores.

But simply creating special zones hasn’t been enough for Baltimore. The city has provided hugely generous subsidies to private businesses and even set up its own bank in the 1980s. Indeed, most of Baltimore’s famous attractions are state enterprises. Writing in the winter 2001 edition of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal about the challenges facing then-new Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, Van Smith and Fred Siegel observed:

The Inner Harbor tourist and entertainment complex, the city’s biggest draw after the Baltimore Orioles baseball team, wouldn’t exist without massive government subvention. A single example can stand for many: Harborplace, the area’s crown jewel, enjoys a $1-a-year lease on the city-owned property—and this after the city demolished the existing waterfront structures, rebuilt the bulkhead along the harbor, and agreed to provide ongoing maintenance.

Baltimore also has government-subsidized hotels, apartments and office buildings galore. In fact, the city has seen precious few major building projects outside of the Johns Hopkins University campus that don’t involve a heavy dose of local economic-development subsidies. (And Hopkins itself is a huge recipient of federal money)

So Baltimore has already tried exactly what Trump has proposed. The results speak for themselves: Even as other comparable cities—Philadelphia, Boston and Washington – are gaining population after decades of declines, Baltimore has continued to lose people and jobs. Boston, which had 150,000 fewer people than Baltimore in 1990, now has over 20,000 more.

In short, Baltimore has, more than any other city in the country, tried the exact path that Trump has proposed for it. And the results are awful.

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