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‘We’ve got some work to do at home’

M&T’s Chiasera says city can surmount current adversities

August “Augie” Chiasera, president of the Greater Baltimore/Chesapeake Regions at M&T Bank, remembers watching the riots erupt in April and being jarred by what he saw.

Chiasera said watching the violence, which engulfed parts of the city in reaction to the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody, saddened him at first. But his next reaction was to start making calls to leaders in Baltimore’s business community to start trying to organize a response.

“I think my first response was one of sadness, and I think my second response was, ‘OK, what can we do to start getting out in front of it?’ and seeing how we can be part of the solution,” Chiasera said.

Chiasera, who serves on both the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore and the Baltimore Development Corp.’s boards, has taken a lead role in bringing businesses and economic development groups together to help the city recover in the aftermath of the unrest.

What follows is a condensed version of an interview conducted with Chiasera in The Daily Record’s offices earlier this month.

Where would you say those efforts [by the business community to reach out to communities] stand today?

Look, the conversations and the discussions are still going on. I think [Greater Baltimore Committee President and CEO] Don Fry talked a little bit about the work that he’s done with [Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s] Hire One Youth program. We’ve got 8,000 jobs filled, which is a huge accomplishment. But as the mayor has been pretty upfront about saying that’s kind of phase one stuff, stuff that we can get done quickly, you know, this summer.

But there are deeper issues that we need to tackle as a community — all members of the community — the faith community, the business community, the individuals who live in the communities, our government partners, we need to work together to find a solution that’s going to serve us for a long time. The individuals that I work with pretty regularly are pretty committed to taking the time to figure out what needs to be worked on.

In your positions, have you established any goals or benchmarks you think the city should be working [toward] to address the issues … from an economic standpoint?

I’ll tell you, I think there are a couple of pieces that are first and foremost in our minds. One is image and reputation. John Racanelli [CEO at the National Aquarium] has some very powerful research that shows the hit that our community took from a damage perspective. We need to get out in front of that and start talking about all the great things that have been happening in Baltimore for the last several decades, and what we’ve got in front of us going forward because there’s a lot of momentum here that we need to somehow capture.

I’m on the board of the Baltimore Development Corp. and this morning we were talking about the fact that many, if not all, the impacted businesses have committed to sort of remaining and staying in the city and in the community. [There’s been] very positive reaction from businesses and community leaders that are here, less of an issue of “Gosh, I don’t want to be here anymore” and more of an idea of “How can I double down and invest in a community that obviously needs our help?” It’s been a far more positive response than I imagined.

How much energy do you spend, and how do you do something that you just alluded to, with the sense that the national image of Baltimore took a hit? How do you deal with that?

I personally think that stories have a powerful way of conferring to individuals, to people, what matters to a community, and what’s happening. So I’m a big proponent of telling and talking about all the positive stories that have always been a part of Baltimore, and having that be more of the headline, and more of the conversation, and less the others stuff. I don’t know how else you do it.

It’s funny, you think about the conversations and discussions that we’re having in this community, I don’t think it’s any different than conversations that should be happening across our country. So we’re in a unique position, frankly, to respond in a way that could be a model for many cities to follow.

Do you do some kind of a road show? Do you go to places New York, or Chicago, or Los Angeles, or does it matter? Should we be focusing on what we’re doing right here?

I’ll talk about the Economic Alliance [of Greater Baltimore] for just a second here. When we look at economic opportunity and job growth [CEO] Tom Sadowski will tell you that 90 to 95 percent net new job growth in the Baltimore community is generated from businesses that are here…

So let’s start at home, let’s remind those business owners, and those developers, and those community leaders that have called Baltimore their home that this is still a great place to be, and to visit, and to live, and to invest, and to work. It’s the mission of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore to talk about our city and community as a world-class city to live, work, learn and invest — period. In light of some of the research that was done by John at the aquarium and Visit Baltimore we’ve got some work to do at home.

So part of the perception [problem] isn’t an outside perception [issue] it’s an inside perception [difficulty]?

The inside perception [issue] being those areas in and around Baltimore City, so whether it’s Baltimore County, Howard County, Harford County, it’s our neighbors and reminding them of the things the city has to offer. Look, I’m encouraged. If you look at the First Thursdays event that followed immediately [after] the civil unrest I want to say some reports showed 10,000 attendees were at the … event. … I think there’s a real willingness, and a desire, to commit and make this a special place, because it is a special place.

Obviously a group like the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore isn’t set up to deal with this issue, and has a different mission. How does it adapt, and what role does it play in trying to repair [Baltimore’s] image moving forward?

What we faced a couple of months ago is bigger than any one person, and it’s bigger than any one organization. And we’ll find our way to success by being as inclusive as possible. And you’re right. We’re not set up to handle a response [to] what happened in April, but we do have a board that is comprised of a number of very successful businesses, along with the GBC board, the Visit Baltimore board, and the Downtown Partnership are deeply committed to this region. And when you find that common ground of opportunity and commitment good things typically happen.

Was there any specific effort made [at M&T] to encourage this engagement with an eye toward seeing what needed to be done post-Freddie Gray? Was there some sense of, ‘We need to have a different kind of conversation or a different kind of engagement?’

We’ve made no bones about it. I mean this community is pretty important to us, right. So we donate in excess of $3 million a year for the last X number of years we’ve been here in town because it’s what we do. So, it just made sense for us, from an M&T perspective, to get out in front of the issue when it impacted our community. And that’s how I, at least, think about it.

 

August ‘Augie’ J. Chiasera

Age: 48

Education: BA from Boston University and MBA from the University of Chicago.

Background: Joined M&T Bank as an executive associate in 1993. Performed a number of senior line and staff positions throughout the organization.  Since relocating to Baltimore with M&T’s acquisition of Allfirst in 2002, led M&T’s small business efforts throughout Maryland/DC/Northern Virginia and managed the middle market/large corporate banking divisions for the region.  Oversaw a strategic review of the bank’s lending/deposit business.

Current position: President of M&T Bank’s Greater Baltimore/Chesapeake regions.

Community engagement: Board chair of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore. Board member of the Baltimore Development Corporation, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Centerstage, the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) and the University of Maryland Medical System. Member of the Mayor’s Tax Policy Review Group. Graduate of the GBC Leadership program.

Personal: Lives in Baltimore County with wife, Melissa, and daughters Gabriella and Sophia