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The game has changed in Baltimore

Fraser Smith Big

A new mayor claimed the headlines appropriately, but some of most important Baltimore news was being made 200 miles north in New York City.

Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank urged several thousand national real estate developers to give Baltimore a look when they’re investing.

Plank urged his convention center audience to recognize their civic responsibility and to realize that stressed as city may be they can thrive with insightful business partners.

Easy for Plank to say. His athletic gear company did $5 billion in revenue last year. And Baltimore recently bankrolled, via tax incentives, a multibillion-dollar, 42-block mixed-used project at Port Covington.

The CEO’s slideshow of what has been called a “city within a city” drew an audible “whoa” from the audience, according to a Baltimore Sun account.

He apparently didn’t say this in his speech, but Plank’s commitment to the city includes reviving some 30 neighborhood centers.

And the deal he negotiated with BUILD (Baltimoreans in Leadership Development) includes a $25 million job development center. Job commitments for projects such as Port Covington often  fall short because the workforce simply isn’t there. Plank and his development arm, Sagamore, seem uninterested in this excuse.

Plank hopes “branding” missions like this one in New York will help him recruit investors for his project. He says the corollary beneficiary will be the city.

The new mayor, Catherine Pugh, must surely hope he’s right. What he’s doing in high-profile settings like the Jacob Javits Center makes him economic development ambassador without portfolio.

He seemed to relish the opportunity he made for himself. While he was at it, he put in a plug for Maglev, the high speed train that promoters see running from Washington to New York.

“You can wake up in Georgetown and go to work in midtown (Manhattan),” he said. “Build it. Let’s build it!”

Powerful new players

Plank’s efforts are not the only example of powerful elements in Baltimore recognizing the game has changed. The city and state can no longer be regarded as the most significant game in town.

This state seems to have little inclination to address the city’s human and physical renewal issues.  The city struggles every year to cut enough to find a balanced budget.

Since the Freddie Gray story put Baltimore on the pass-go list, several institutions have stepped beyond their historically reclusive borders. Federal health care rules and regulations push them in more neighborly directions, but the new chemistry is nonetheless heartening.

Everyone knows Mayor Pugh has assumed one of the most burdensome political jobs in the nation – and more power to her. She’s wanted the job for most of her adult life.

She has stayed the course. She organized the city’s first marathon. Now she gets to enter a different sort of race, a race almost for survival.

She had some essential tutelage.

When William Donald Schaefer became an iconic city leader, he spent much of his time recruiting business leaders to share some of his burden — to serve as a kind of impressed shadow Cabinet. He gave them no choice. Power company heads, the phone company’s boss, major property owners, and various other captains of private commerce responded to his call – his orders, actually.

Less of that recruitment has been visible in recent years. But various forces have come to see their fate tightly entwined with the city’s.

Reaching out

The new mayor should be reaching out to the old and new city fathers. The challenge will be to find mutual advantage in expressions of civic responsibility.

In theory, municipal health and uplift would be enough incentive. No aspiring company wants to live in a city famous for blight, racial health disparities, murder and underperforming schools. They can decide not to accept the intractable culture of death and addiction.

This mayor, it seems, has spent the last few months building a team of experienced, talented people willing – as she has been – to find answers, to change the fortunes of Baltimore.

As Plank said to his business colleagues last week: “When we do well, we can do good.”

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.


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