On a recent weekend, prospective Dundalk homeowners and renters were invited to “Live the Unexpected” and tour the peninsula community to see firsthand its redevelopment, new jobs and housing options.
“Dundalk has a lot of charm and historic character in some of its older neighborhoods,” said Amy Menzer, executive director of Dundalk Renaissance Corporation. “It has a National Register historic district, has some of the most affordable waterfront property available in the region. (There are) great waterfront parks and warm and welcoming people. It’s really close to lots of things in the city and in the region.”
Menzer, who is leading the “Live the Unexpected” marketing effort, is one of five Maryland women Path to Excellence is highlighting this month as they champion efforts to bring businesses to their communities, both urban and rural. She has a Ph.D. in geography and environmental engineering from Johns Hopkins University, and her dissertation focused on revitalization of older suburbs, specifically Essex/Middle River in Baltimore County.
After graduate school, Menzer worked in housing and transportation policy advocacy and helped with community organizing and grant writing for non-profit organizations, such as 1000 Friends of Maryland and the Citizens Planning and Housing Association.
But she wanted a “more tangible, immediate impact” in her work.
Originally from Rockville, Menzer began volunteering when moved to her husband’s hometown of Dundalk. She was hired as DRC’s executive director in 2006 and said Dundalk has a lot of strengths over new communities.
“Neighbors look out for each other, it feels much more like a community than a new development of houses might have.”
Refocusing and reimagining
Again and again in focus groups, people shared an impression of Dundalk that wasn’t based on actual experience, Menzer said. Since it is a peninsula, many people drive right by it and don’t know there are great housing options in such a central location to Baltimore.
“Whatever it is people are thinking they might be expecting to find in Dundalk, there are a lot of other things that are here,” she said.
She added that there are many indicators things are turning around in the area, such as population growth and the redevelopment of Sparrow’s Point, bringing new jobs and new tenants. Dundalk is only one of four communities in the state – and the only one outside Baltimore City – participating in the Maryland’s Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative, which helps it access state resources for neighborhood revitalization.
In 2015, the DRC introduced a state-funded Market Boost Partnership Program for small developers to renovate nine existing homes, boosting renovated housing inventory and market values. There are plans to renovate 20 homes in 2016.
Additionally, the DRC will renovate its existing offices this summer to create a business incubator downstairs and build on the success of a pop-up shop program that brought businesses and retail options to Main Street. It’s just another way Menzer is reimagining Dundalk’s future.
Defending against downturns
It’s been close to a year and a half since Karen Holt took on a new role as Harford County’s economic development director.
In Harford County, about half of the economy is driven by defense contracting, with 110 different firms, and many are based at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where Holt once oversaw a consortium of government, industry and academic leaders as they prepared for a base expansion. As she helped coordinate transportation, infrastructure and other needs, she learned to take a holistic approach to what an industry needs to thrive.
Now she is pushing for economic diversification, so Harford County isn’t vulnerable to a defense downturn: Frito Lay recently completed a $60 million expansion and is undergoing another $60 million expansion of two new lines at its Perryman Peninsula facility. MedStar Health just opened a new 100,000 square foot medical facility in Bel Air as well.
“It’s a very tangible experience when you can drive down the road and you can see new businesses,” Holt said. “Or finding a solution to a challenge that a local company is experiencing. Or helping a new entrepreneur grow their company or idea and put roots down here in Harford. That’s been very rewarding.”
A Havre de Grace native, she started her career in public affairs at APG, did a stint in tourism and even worked in public administration for the school system. All of those experiences showed her that many different factors are important in economic development, which drives the entire community.
Under her leadership, the economic development office moved from Bel Air to a commercial corridor on Route 40 near Havre de Grace and is now located with several other agencies to create a one-stop shop for business. The Small Business Development Center, which is located in that same strip mall, recently hosted a Shark Tank Susquehanna competition for entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas to potential investors.
Making opportunities for others – and herself
Jumping into the private sector, Keasha Haythe did not expect her phone to ring the day after she left her job as the Dorchester County’s economic development director.
But the entrepreneur is happy to report that it did. Haythe, president of Zoe Economic Development Group, LLC, is now helping an Eastern Shore oyster hatchery and a 70-year-old business that is looking to relocate and expand.
“I believe that economic development transforms lives,” Haythe said. “To increase job creation opportunities for families and individuals, that’s my passion, that’s what I enjoy doing.”
As economic development director, Haythe solidified partnerships for the county’s $8 million technology park, a project that had been stagnant for 10 years. She helped establish an anchor for the park, the Eastern Shore Innovation Center business incubator. It opened in February with six tenants and is the first on the shore to focus on technology and innovative businesses.
Haythe, who serves as president of the Maryland Economic Development Association, began her career in economic development as an office assistant in Queen Anne’s County business and tourism office. Eight years ago, she was named Dorchester County’s economic development director. She and her husband also owned an auto body shop during that time, her first experience as an entrepreneur.
They have three children, and while working full time, Haythe is also pursuing her business administration degree at Chesapeake College. She hopes to finish her bachelor’s degree by the time her daughter graduates from high school in 2018. She will be the first in her family to obtain a college degree.
“It’s never too late to start making your dreams come true,” said Haythe. “It’s not how you start the race, but it’s how you finish.”
Not long ago, Kimberly Clark, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., and William Cole, the organization’s president, were given the opportunity tour the new 20-story tower at Harbor Point, which will be the headquarters for Exelon’s Constellation business unit.
While they were in the building, Cole caught Clark in a candid moment looking out the window at the city she’s worked to revive for nearly two decades. While she was looking out at East Baltimore, Fells Point, and down Monument Street out to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Cole, he told her, felt compelled to take the picture because it was “like a mother’s proud moment.”
“I guess, you know, that’s what it is, I just consider [these projects] all my children, because I don’t have a favorite. I just love every aspect of what we do, from working with our mom-and-pops to having a Morgan Stanley come into Baltimore City, it’s all proud moments, it’s like watching my children graduate,” Clark said.
To Clark, who previously worked in property management and commercial real estate before she was recruited to BDC more than 17 years ago, the small scale neighborhood development and business retention are as important as massive redevelopment projects.
One of the projects she’s fondest of, and one of her first with BDC, was working to retain the Whitman, Requardt & Associates LLP. The engineering and architecture firm, was thinking about moving to Baltimore County.
“Everybody always leans toward the big projects at BDC, because they’re exciting, they’re the sexy projects, but not much is written about what we do in the actual neighborhoods,” Clark, who lives in her childhood home in the city’s Woodbourne Heights neighborhood, said.
A project Clark is currently working on, which doesn’t involve vast sums of money, is a $350,000 grant for a property owner to make façade improvements on commercial properties in the 1100 block of West Baltimore Street.
“These are some terrific buildings in West Baltimore Street that he has acquired that are going to be fantastic after these facades, and all it takes is the interest and putting money into a community that can help,” Clark said.
Amy Bonitz, president and CEO of Baltimore Arts Realty Corp., originally worked in community development, and went to graduate school at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the intention of becoming an urban planner. But after working 11 years with a real estate developer, she found she liked the results she could achieve.
“I think the concreteness of redevelopment got me hooked. You know that at the end of the process, there’s something tangible that you can point to,” Bonitz said. “I think the other really exciting thing is creating buildings for great people to do great things.”
Bonitz joined BARCO last fall, and now oversees all development, financing and construction, and operations for the nonprofit real estate corporation’s portfolio.
The firm’s next big project, which is scheduled to open this fall, is the $10 million Open Works building on Greenmount Avenue, which will be an incubator for Baltimore creative economy and will feature a wood shop, metal shop and digital media studio among various other uses.
“I think real estate can be the platform of great economic development, or community development, or the arts, or everything combined, which is what’s happening now in Station North,” she said.
Adam Bednar is a staff writer for The Daily Record who covers real estate and development. He can be reached at [email protected]. Meg Tully is a freelance writer who wrote about women serving on nonprofit boards for the April issue of Path to Excellence.