The game has changed, and the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore has changed with it.
Praising the expansion of Morgan Stanley and T. Rowe Price, J. Thomas Sadowski, president and CEO of the Economic Alliance, said his group is focusing on growing what’s already in its backyard.
“We used to be out there. We used to be in other markets, talking to companies, getting their impressions, what they thought about Baltimore. Now we’re here,” he said.
While companies used to be flush with cash and looking to enter one of several key markets, both austerity and business evolution has changed that, he said.
“A lot of big corporations are already decentralized, and they have strategic operations in several of these markets,” Sadowski said. “So now the decisions are in which market to expand, so the important element for us is getting to know the people that are here, understanding what their challenges and what their opportunities are and helping them answer the tough questions back at the home office.”
Sadowski, 46, has led the Economic Alliance since 2008, joining the organization in 2006 as executive vice president. He sat down with The Daily Record for a wide-ranging interview covering topics from Maryland’s role as a regional innovator and the state’s weak but developing ability to commercialize its research to the need for public-private partnerships.
In the past 18 months, the Economic Alliance has organized trips to Austin, Texas, and Silicon Valley in California with a delegation of the state’s business and economic development leaders, aimed at figuring out how to increase regional innovation.
The trip to Austin sparked the idea for InvestMaryland, the state’s $84 million venture capital investment fund that will target early-stage companies, Sadowski said. The money was raised in March through a tax credit auction and will start to be doled out in July.
“When we went to Austin, Christian [Johansson, secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development] was part of a team that we had assembled, and we were sitting down with a man that basically pioneered DSL technology,” Sadowski said. “We were talking about ourselves as being the cyber capital of the world and all the things that we were doing working with the federal government, and he just sat back and he just said, ‘Well, you know, we’re doing a lot of that, too, and we’re doing it all with private capital.’ And the light bulb went off.”
The mission of the Economic Alliance is “promoting the greater Baltimore region as a world-class market in which to live, work, learn and invest,” Sadowski said. That means marketing the region, attracting and retaining businesses, serving as a thought leader and forming partnerships, such as a recent joining with BioHealth Innovation.
BioHealth Innovation is a Rockville-based public-private partnership that works to commercialize research and increase early-stage funding of biohealth products and companies. The Economic Alliance will be the group’s primary business partner in the Baltimore region.
“We’re very excited about that partnership because not only does it help us leverage our strengths, but it helps really formalize a partnership with the [Interstate] 270 corridor,” Sadowski said.
“If we have strengths in research and development and health care, their strengths are obvious in the presence of industry and investment capital and also the presence of [National Institutes of Health], so we think that the strengths are so formidable and so complementary.”
About 88 percent of venture capital investment in Maryland comes from outside of the state, Sadowski said.
“What we’re really working on, and by way of the Biohealth Innovation partnership, is trying to get some of the local venture capitalists to shift their focus back on home base, make some investments here at home.”
The Baltimore-Washington corridor’s concentration of information technology workers has led some to call the area “Silicon Bay,” a riff on the high-tech hub in California. But the state has lagged in bringing its innovative thoughts to market.
“We’re still 42nd in the country in terms of commercialization of that kind of work,” Sadowski said. “If we could just move up five, 10 clicks on that scale, wow, what an exponential impact that’s going to have.”
Climbing the commercialization scale, he said, means doing three things: embracing a winning attitude “that we can do this, that we do have the resources and the people available, that we become more of a market that’s ‘need to share’ as opposed to ‘need to know’ and that we really embrace means of collaboration in order to be more competitive.
“I think that we can’t look to government for all the answers. We can’t look to the private sector to bail out government when times are tough,” he said. “And I think that’s reflective of who the Economic Alliance really is, that partnership of government, industry and higher ed. It’s all of us working together in partnership to come up with solutions.”
The inclusion of government is what separates the Economic Alliance from organizations such as the Greater Baltimore Committee and other economic development groups, Sadowski said.
“The core differentiator is that we don’t lobby government, we have them there at the table,” he said.
Among its business partners, Sadowski’s group lists the Baltimore Development Corp., Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, Greater Baltimore Technology Council, Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and the Living Classrooms Foundation.
Praising the efforts of the Sparrows Point Partnership, a group of 16 business and private sector leaders that will advise Baltimore County on the best use of industrial property on the Sparrows Point peninsula, Sadowski said the Economic Alliance is also delving into the discussion, working on a study of the Port of Baltimore.
“We’re actually working on an economic impact statement as a result of the improvements that have been made at Seagirt and the CSX Intermodal Facility being established somewhere within the marketplace, looking at what that means in a hard dollar and economic impact sense and what opportunities could stem from that,” he said.
The Maryland Port Administration and Ports America Chesapeake have entered into a 50-year, up to $1.8 billion partnership, with the state leasing the Seagirt Marine Terminal to Ports America for $3.2 million annually. Ports America has built a 50-foot container berth at the port, making Baltimore one of only two East Coast ports that can handle the large vessels expected to travel through the Panama Canal once its expansion is completed in early 2015.
“Look at how Oriole Park changed the sports world forever,” Sadowski said. “I think what’s happening at the Port of Baltimore is really going to change the logistics and the transportation industry.”
CSX is working with the state’s Department of Transportation to relocate the intermodal facility from Seagirt Marine Terminal to an area south of the Howard Street Tunnel. The project is set for completion by 2015, but a location has not yet been chosen.
“All of our government partners want it. All of them want it, but they also have the job of being responsible to their citizens,” Sadowski said.
J. THOMAS SADOWSKI
Hometown: Street, Md.
Family: Married to Melissa Sadowski; three sons, ages 15, 13 and 13 months
Education: University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 1989, political science major
Work history: President and CEO, Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, January 2006 – present; executive director, Harford Country Economic Development, January 1999 – January 2006; business development director, Baltimore County Economic Development, June 1989 – January 1999.
Boards and service: University of Baltimore Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, BioHealth Innovation Board of Directors, Upper Chesapeake Health Foundation, Stevenson School of Business and Leadership, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Federal Facilities Advisory Board