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Joe Nathanson: Next steps for Baltimore’s ‘next economy’

Periodically, various academics and think tank professionals have taken a look at the health of Baltimore’s economy. A study by the Washington-based Brookings Institution authored by Jennifer Vey is the latest, and it brings a refreshing new perspective to this line of inquiry.

The report, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is titled “Building from Strength: Creating Opportunity in Greater Baltimore’s Next Economy” and had its public launch in late April at a forum hosted by the Baltimore branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. Since that event, I’ve had a chance to follow up with the author and with several of those who attended the forum.

Vey, a fellow in Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, observes that the region’s economy, by many measures, is doing well. Indeed, some in the upper ranks of the area’s medical and educational institutions and financial services firms are doing very well.

But, in the cautionary note at the heart of her study, Vey reports that nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of the area’s workforce are in low-wage jobs. They hold positions that cannot support a family at a decent standard of living and that offer few career paths to higher levels of responsibility or remuneration.

As far as the prospects for the “next economy,” the report has identified sectors that would be familiar to those who have delved into earlier examinations of our regional economy. These include a “globally connected manufacturing sector; a robust, market-oriented bioscience industry; an open, entrepreneurial information technology sector; and … firms and jobs that convey a ‘green’ benefit.”

Baltimore has the opportunity to make gains in these and other areas of future growth. But for the area to become more inclusive and to give hope for economic advancement to those now holding low-wage jobs, Greater Baltimore has to overcome some institutional impediments.

Vey writes, “Baltimore’s ability to grow the next economy is also hampered by its own acute lack of regional vision and coordination. In fact, nearly all of those interviewed for this report expressed a similar lament about what seems an inability (or disinclination) of state and metro area leaders — from all sectors — to unite around a set of regional goals.”

A continuing disconnect

I tested this proposition with local leaders who attended the April forum.

In the view of Diane Bell-McKoy, the head of Associated Black Charities, the various players in the workforce community — educators, nonprofits, government — “have never been more closely aligned.”

However, there is a continuing disconnect between those players and the various economic development agencies in the area. Those latter entities are not designing economic development strategies with the needs of those in low-wage jobs in mind.

Asked what should be done, Bell-McKoy mentioned the need to foster business connections between successful majority-owned businesses and small minority-owned businesses trying to get a foothold in the next economy.

Andy Frank, special advisor to the president of the Johns Hopkins University on economic development, notes that “several groups, like the Greater Baltimore [Committee], the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, Greater Baltimore Tech Council, and Johns Hopkins have offered to help with next steps. The team has started by collecting more information from regions that have gone through this process [of collaborating to respond to a changing economy].

GBC president and CEO Donald C. Fry noted that a lot of good work is being done throughout the region on the “next economy”, but concurred with efforts at more collaboration. “It is never wrong to talk of better regional coordination,” he said.

And, Lyn Farrow Collins, the project manager for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council’s Sustainable Communities Initiative, points out “the region cooperatively pursued and was awarded the HUD Sustainable Communities Planning Grant in 2011. This three-year initiative offers a tremendous opportunity for continued development of a regional vision and for coordination on the regional level.”

Hopeful signs

All of these comments are hopeful signs of a greater willingness to collaborate on a regional basis. But they still beg the question as to specific action steps that might be undertaken.

In my communications with Jennifer Vey, she pointed to several ongoing collaborations in regions across the nation trying to stay competitive in the global economy. These include:

-Spurring entrepreneurial activity and commercial innovation in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region.

-Retooling manufacturing and retraining industrial workers in Northeast Ohio.

-Becoming a global hub of advanced green technologies in Puget Sound.

These examples and others may be examined by the team mentioned by Andy Frank. But there still seems to be a need to overcome the disconnect cited by Bell-McKoy between those focused on developing skills within the workforce and the directions pursued by the region’s major economic development organizations.

Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates, Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He contributes a monthly column to The Daily Record and can be contacted at urbaninfo@comcast.net.