How to address the decaying economy of an industrial city in decline has long been a question to which Baltimore’s political leaders have lacked answers.
Some of the Democratic candidates for mayor are beginning to put forward plans they argue will lead to a growing economy and provide opportunities for all residents. But it’s unclear whether economic issues will resonate with an electorate focused on public safety.
“I think to a degree, an average voter… the main focus will continue to be on crime and public safety,” said Hassan Giordano, activist, local political pundit and supporter of former mayor Sheila Dixon. “But to a super voter… I think it goes beyond that, I think you’ll start to see, if they haven’t already, [people] start choosing their candidate based off a plethora of issues, especially economic development, education and crime.”
From the ruins of the 2008 economic collapse, a glimmer of hope has emerged that the economy driven by a startup culture in fields ranging from cybersecurity to restaurants could take hold.
But technical conversations about the equality of Baltimore’s economic development strategy following the riots in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death were eventually pushed to the margins by a skyrocketing number of homicides.
Yet as the race for the Democratic nomination to replace outgoing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake heats up — voting starts April 14 — some of the candidates are again discussing economic development.
Councilman Carl Stokes, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 1999, was the first candidate to begin addressing economic development through policy proposals.
His campaign released a 13-page plan earlier this month spelling out his vision for creating more jobs and equitable development.
The plan lays out several goals, such as emphasizing the creation of innovation hubs that will link struggling communities with incentive areas that attract startups, entrepreneurs and creative talents.
Stokes’ plan uses Station North; EBDI; University of Maryland BioPark; and the proposed Port Covington development as examples of how the strategy could work.
The plan also calls for reforms to the city’s use of Tax Increment Financing, which uses city bonds to pay for infrastructure costs associated with development. Stokes, a long-time critic of these incentives, would require developers to “self-fund” TIFs.
Another major proposal from Stokes is to create a strategic real estate investment fund via state, nonprofit and corporate funds. It’s modeled on a similar program in Cincinnati that began in 2001 following riots in the city.
DeRay Mckesson, who gained a national following as a Black Lives Matter activist, released his plan for “community prosperity” on Friday just days after he entered the primary race.
The plan echoes many of the same ideas put forward by Stokes, including a call to focus on the way the city uses development incentives and tax credits.
But Mckesson’s proposals also detail a mix of ideas. Some may alarm business owners, such as a $15 minimum wage, while others include proposals to streamline regulations, licensing and permitting processes that are the bane of many small businesses.
On Monday, state Sen. Catherine Pugh released her education policy proposals as well as what she’s calling the “Five Pillars for Moving Our City Forward,” which include economic development proposals.
Pugh’s plan calls for turning Baltimore into “a premiere incubator system,” streamlining the process for reviewing development projects as well as supporting strategic use of Tax Increment Financing.
“The Five Pillars, I think, ties into all the issues we’re having to deal with as a city,” Pugh said. “The reason I started with education is because when you talk about economic development one of the issues we have in our city, is that we have such a large percentage of folks who don’t have the proper education, or training, to meet [the requirements] of the various jobs of the 21st century.”
No other major candidates, so far, have put forward plans spelling out how they want to create jobs and encourage new businesses in Baltimore.
City Councilman Nick Mosby touched on an issue important to business owners by releasing the most comprehensive plan of any candidate on property taxes and housing.
Property taxes have been cited by some economists, such as Stephen J.K. Walters, professor at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business, as one of the city’s biggest hurdles to economic growth and stability.
Mosby proposes lowering the property tax rate in the city for owner-occupied properties from $2.13 to $1.80 per $100 of assessed value, and non-owner occupied properties from $2.248 to $2.10 per $100 of assessed value.
He proposes paying for the cuts through savings in the budget. Those savings include $10.71 million by replicating efficiencies found in Chicago, a city more than four times larger than Baltimore that spends $17 million a year on parking compared to the $14.6 million Charm City spends on parking enforcement annually.
Mosby would also streamline the city’s process for addressing problem properties, resulting in $12.75 million in savings, and finding $14.53 million in savings from addressing the Baltimore’s unified call center that handles 311 and 911.
David Warnock, a prominent businessman also seeking the nomination, unveiled a housing plan on Thursday tangentially related to the city’s economy. His proposals including training local residents to help rehab and demolish vacant buildings marring many neighborhoods, providing incentives to build and maintain affordable housing and creating easier access to housing for homeless residents.
Other candidates, such as Dixon and Elizabeth Embry, chief of the criminal division for the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, have yet to release plans explaining how they plan to rebuild Baltimore’s economy.