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Baltimore businesses optimistic about Pugh, admit tough work ahead

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Mayor Catherine Pugh officially took over as Baltimore’s chief executive on Tuesday at a time when cranes dot the skyline as physical proof of investment in Charm City.

But Baltimore remains a recovering industrial town that struggles with poverty and crime, a fact the new mayor acknowledged during her inauguration.

During her speech at the War Memorial Building after being sworn into office Pugh, a Democrat, spoke of the city’s unemployed and homeless residents and pledged to help by encouraging businesses in the city to expand. She told Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who also spoke at the ceremony, she is ready to work with him to make sure President-elect Donald Trump, a Republican, makes good on campaign promises of job creation and infrastructure improvements, which Pugh said are badly needed in Baltimore.

“I want you all to know that we understand the problems that this city is facing … We know that people choose cities for two specific reasons — they want great schools and they want low crime rates, and we’re committed to doing that,” Pugh said. “We understand that downtowns are really important. But so our uptowns and neighborhoods from east to west, north to south; every neighborhood deserves to be the greatest.”

Pugh takes over as the city’s leader during a development boom, particularly in the multifamily sector downtown and along Baltimore’s waterfront. Projects, such as the $160 million 414 Light St. tower, the $100 million Anthem House I and $170 million Liberty Harbor East are reshaping the city’s skyline.

She also comes into office as Sagamore Development Co. and Under Armour begin the massive redevelopment project converting underutilized industrial land at Port Covington into one of the nation’s largest urban renewal projects.

At the same time, Baltimore, with a population of about 620,000 residents, is on pace to top 300 murders for the second consecutive year. Meanwhile, 28.3 percent of black residents in the city are living below the poverty line, according to the Maryland Alliance for the Poor, and the city is still grappling with the damage its reputation suffered from the Freddie Gray riots in April 2015.

The stark differences between luxury apartments going up in tony neighborhoods while vacant homes in communities suffering from disinvestment are being targeted by city and state for demolition has led some critics to call for Baltimore to examine the city’s economic development strategy.

Still, on Monday business leaders said they were excited about what the new mayor’s administration could mean for businesses in the city.

Daniel P. Henson III, owner of Henson Development Co., which is currently involved in a proposal to redevelop the Old Town Mall site, was buoyed by the mayor’s previous experience.

“I think the most important thing is that the mayor has a lot of experience getting things done,” Henson said.

Arsh Mirmiran, a partner at Caves Valley Partners, which is the master developer for the $250 million Stadium Square project, praised Pugh’s predecessor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for putting the city in a position to grow. He said he believes the new mayor can continue that growth and oversee a transformation of Baltimore.

“I think we’re really on the cusp of taking off and becoming one of the great cities in the country and the world,” said Mirmiran, who was a campaign contributor to Pugh.

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, said he knows the mayor cares about the entire city, not just its traditional central business district, and that he wants to work with her on being more aggressive in marketing the city.

“I feel like if there’s anything we haven’t done well in the last 20 years it is tell our story well,” Fowler said.

Christopher Abramson, executive managing director of NGKF Capital Market’s Baltimore office, said the new administration presents a fresh start, which generally encourages optimism.

“It’s symbolic more than anything. We haven’t really seen …we’ve heard (about) some potential impact, but we haven’t really seen anything firsthand,” Abramson said.

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, agreed there is a sense of optimism among businesses. He stressed that one of Pugh’s top priorities should be to resolve the city’s high-crime problem.

“I think that public safety is an area that there is some concern about because obviously it has a tragic effect on people who are impacted by violence, or violent crimes, but also that carries over to businesses and the employees at companies who are directly or indirectly impacted,” Fry said.