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Donald C. Fry: Next, let’s have BDC’s cohesive plan

More than four years after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s transition team recommended the adoption of a strategic plan as the top economic development priority for Baltimore, the city’s elected policymakers and business leaders are still waiting for such a plan to emerge from the Baltimore Development Corp., whose president resigned last week.

When BDC President Brenda McKenzie resigned on Aug. 7 — two years into the job — the mayor named City Councilman Bill Cole to head the agency that is expected to take the lead in nurturing the city’s future economic growth and job creation.

While the appointment of a council member as president of the BDC caught many by surprise, it was a savvy move by the mayor. Cole brings to the position a sharp insight into the BDC’s work that he gained while serving on the council, where he was a leading voice on economic development issues for more than a decade. Most importantly, he has a keen understanding of the correlation that exists among economic development, job creation and neighborhoods.

Cole assumes his BDC leadership role after the agency had been working on a strategic plan for over a year, but the anticipated plan based on that work had stalled in the recent months.

“No single cohesive plan or economic development strategy exists” that coordinates 10 city agencies that have a role in economic development, reported the mayor’s transition team in 2010. Cole was a member of the economic development and jobs committee that made that recommendation. Today the city remains without one.

The overarching priority for Cole, the BDC board and the agency’s more than 40 staff professionals is clear — finalize a smart, outcome-driven strategic plan for the work of the BDC and for job growth in the city.

Such a plan needs to address the basics: how to retain and grow businesses and jobs that are already in Baltimore, how to attract more businesses and jobs to the city and — the key prerequisite component — how to ensure that Baltimore is a good place to do business.

There is much to do in the challenging world of economic development. Some tasks are basic and apply to many jurisdictions. Others are specific to Baltimore. Some key areas of attention for BDC include the following:

- Make retention and expansion of existing businesses a top priority. Economic developers have long recognized that retaining existing businesses and nurturing their growth is the fundamental core activity of any good economic development strategy.

- Leverage the city’s assets as a business location. Inventory the city’s strengths — and there are many — as a place to locate and grow a business and identify opportunities to capitalize on them. Look to strengthen those assets, identify growing industry sectors and maximize the potential for growth of those sectors in the city.

- Assemble a superior economic development “toolbox.” Elements of a good toolbox to serve existing and new businesses could range widely from financial incentives such as tax credits to technical assistance or an effective, streamlined permit approval process.

- Build workforce development resources. Ensure that Baltimore’s education community focuses on the

workforce needs of growing businesses.

- Coordinate and balance business development with neighborhood development. Business development and job growth nurture neighborhood economic health and quality — and vice versa. One cannot exist without the other.

- Bolster the city’s business marketing resources. Get aggressive. Tirelessly champion Baltimore’s brand as a business location.

- Lead through the plan. Use the elements of the strategic plan to promote leadership on policy issues relating to the city’s business development.

Economic development is not rocket science. In today’s hyper-competitive environment, it’s a contact sport characterized by the basic blocking and tackling needed to craft a welcoming climate where existing large and small businesses grow and where entrepreneurs elsewhere want to be.

Business advocates will be looking to Cole to guide the BDC and partner city agencies away from “silo” project-by-project tactics and toward a coordinated, integrated strategic approach driven by proven basic principles of good economic development and job creation.

To accomplish this, Cole will need to be a vocal advocate for public policy that enhances the ability of businesses already here to thrive and attracts businesses from elsewhere to the city.

Business leaders at the Greater Baltimore Committee encourage Cole to be guided by eight core pillars for competitiveness developed by CEOs and economic development leaders across the state and published in the GBC’s 2011 report, “Gaining a Competitive Edge.”

Briefly, the pillars are: government leadership that partners with business, a workforce that meets business needs, streamlined and predictable regulatory policies, a fair and competitive tax structure, competitive costs of doing business, superior transportation infrastructure, strategic government investments in business growth and an aggressive long-term business marketing strategy.

Baltimore needs a vocal advocate for the kind of business competitiveness that will power the city’s future economic growth and build a high quality of life for all of its citizens.

The mayor has tapped a talented person for this job. For Bill Cole, the BDC and the city, it’s the right time and the right place for transformative leadership.

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. His e-mail address is donaldf@gbc.org. In 2010, he served as a co-chair of the Economic Development and Jobs Committee of the Mayoral Transition Team. 

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