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Editorial: Hit the reset button

With last month’s announcement of the impending retirement of M. J. “Jay” Brodie as president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city is now embarked on a search for his successor.

Mr. Brodie, 75, is stepping down after 16 years as head of Baltimore’s quasi-public economic development agency. His accomplishments are many.

But 16 years is an eternity in our fast-changing world, and so Mr. Brodie’s departure presents the perfect opportunity for a comprehensive review of Baltimore’s approach to economic development. Questions large and small need to be asked, most notably whether the city’s structure and approach of today match the needs and challenges of today, much less those of tomorrow.

As she ponders the direction of the city’s economic development efforts, Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings Blake need look no further for a starting point than the findings and recommendations of the Economic Development and Jobs Committee of her own mayoral transition team.

In its March 2, 2010 report, the committee — a cross-section of representatives from the public and private sectors — offered this sobering observation: “Currently, no clear, single definition of ‘economic development’ exists and it is not readily apparent who ‘owns’ economic development efforts on behalf of the city.

“It became apparent that no single agency is charged with carrying out an overall economic development strategy for the city with measurable goals. No single agency is charged with leading overall economic development.”

The committee found that no department of city government was sufficiently proactive in “attracting and retaining business,” and it characterized the BDC’s efforts as “more reactive than proactive in business development.”

In terms of formulating a strategy, the committee said the basic questions are pretty obvious: 1) How does the city retain the businesses and people already here? 2) How does the city attract more businesses and people? 3) How does the city ensure that it’s a good place to do business?

The committee also recommends creation of a Mayor’s Cabinet on Economic Development, headed by the mayor or her designee, that would include heads of key city agencies, including the BDC, and meet quarterly to review strategy and progress in meeting goals.

And the report calls on the mayor to be the city’s chief economic development advocate, both in retaining and assisting current businesses and in recruiting new businesses.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake has already reached out to the local business community through round-table discussions to hear and address issues and concerns. That’s a start.

While there is room to debate some of the details, such as whether BDC should remain a quasi-public agency or whether an economic development cabinet would provide increased focus or merely increased bureaucracy, the city clearly needs a well-conceived, well-communicated economic development strategy and a structure to support its effective implementation.

And the time to develop that strategy and structure is now.