The number of jobs in downtown Baltimore topped pre-recession levels for the first time last year, according to an annual report to be released Thursday.
Downtown employment rose to about 122,000 in 2013, up 8 percent from 2012 and 7 percent since 2007, according to the Downtown Partnership's annual State of Downtown study. It's the first time in a decade of Downtown Partnership reports that the area has posted two consecutive years of job gains.
"The employment growth number is the most impressive part of the report. … It shows that downtown Baltimore is headed in the right direction when it comes to employment," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a nonprofit funded by businesses to oversee cleaning, security and other programs downtown.
In the city as a whole, employment remains down by about 10,000 jobs since 2007, according to data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS shows a gain of 2,200 jobs for in 2013 compared with 2012.
The strength of Baltimore's downtown, on metrics that range from employment concentration to library membership, has long made it an outlier within the city, said Seema Iyer, associate director of the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore Merrick School of Business. As the engine of the regional economy, its success is critical to broader economic growth, she said.
"It is the economic center of the region, so the fact that it is growing is only going to help, not only the city of Baltimore but the region," Iyer said. "The downtown growing I think is certainly a trend that's going to continue. … The hope for everybody else is … that downtown's strength won't be an island."
The Downtown Partnership defines downtown as the space within a one-mile radius of Pratt and Light Streets, an area that includes the waterfront from Federal Hill to Harbor Point, as well as parts of Mount Vernon, the stadium district and the city's west side.
In that area, healthcare and social assistance jobs represented about 20 percent of employment, followed by professional, scientific and technical services at 14 percent, according to the report based on data collected by the information firm Claritas.
Daraius Irani, executive director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, said he was not familiar with the Downtown Partnership's data, but it suggests gains within the focus area, while other parts of the city lost jobs.
"There's a 'miracle mile' around the Inner Harbor, as the Downtown Partnership report indicates. It's doing great," Irani said. "You start going up Charles Street and some of the other areas and you see areas where job recovery has not hit them yet or has never hit them at all. Those areas need to be addressed."
Even within the downtown, the report suggested, there's still room for recovery. Despite year-over-year improvement, rents for office space remain lower than before the recession, while the overall vacancy rate is 16 percent, down almost 2 percentage points from 2012 but up 5 percentage points from 2007.
Bob Manekin, managing director of Colliers International's Baltimore office, said there are signs that that could be about to change. The downtown's prime Pratt Street real estate is taken, and with many of the older buildings being converted to apartments, he said, he expects to see some of the cheaper, emptier places start to fill.
"That's going to be a salvation for those buildings," he said.
The addition of First National Bank was the only significant new lease of 2013, according to the report. Most of the new employment came from the expansion of existing businesses, but not to the point that employers want additional space, Fowler said.
Vacancy rates in shopping developments such as Harbor East, Harborplace and the Gallery were around 10 percent, similar to last year and about a point higher than the national average.
Michele L. Whelley, who headed the Downtown Partnership a decade ago and now works as an economic development consultant, said adding shops and restaurants, as well as continuing to improve the public spaces, will be critical to reach the goal of a 24-hour downtown that the partnership was founded to achieve.
"Parts of the city are close, but we need to do more to kind of knit it all together," she said. "Public space is very important. People have to feel comfortable in that space. Clean streets, attractive sidewalks, and well-lit storefronts — all of that combines for an atmosphere that entices people outside."
Fowler said the partnership is focused on securing a new supermarket to replace the Fresh & Greens that closed at the end of last year.
The group also will continue to push for improvements to downtown's public spaces, he said. A $1.5 million facelift for Preston Gardens, the sliver of green that splits St. Paul Street in front of Mercy Medical Center, is supposed to start later this year, he said.
On Thursday, the Downtown Partnership also will introduce a map of new names for districts within the downtown, in an effort to help connect residents with the area. The names include Charles Center, Bromo, University of Maryland Center, Preston Gardens, City Hall, Seton Hill and Cathedral Hill.