Jason Bass: ‘How do you not know that they exist?’

Baltimore native Jason Bass has emerged as a leader in city business circles by creating enterprises like Night Brunch and then serving as CEO for Treason Toting.

In July Bass started a new role that leverages both his business savvy and community connections. As the Hotel Revival’s first director of culture and impact he’s charged with engaging neighbors, guests and others in cultural programming and events at the hotel and its food and beverage establishments.

Through his work at the hotel Bass hopes to provide a new way of looking at Baltimore to a broader audience and to expose guests to a city that’s more than the lurid tales of drugs and violence that permeate headlines.

He spoke with The Daily Record as part of a series of interviews aimed at continuing the conversations started during the newspaper’s “Young, Black, Homegrown and Leading in Baltimore” webinar. The interview below has been edited for clarity and space.

The Daily Record: Tell me a little bit about how you view Baltimore and how being a Black man and a native of the city colors and informs that perception.

Jason Bass: I think it has an incredible amount of potential. I mean, we have all the things that would make us great on paper, right.

We have a pretty decent transportation system. It definitely needs an upgrade, but we have something, we have a train hub, we have an airport. It’s uniquely placed between all these other great cities like New York, Philadelphia, D.C.

There’s a lot of wonderful, great areas to walk through, and it has a rich culture.

Sometimes I think race does really play an issue here, and at some point I just think the citizens lost trust with each other.

TDR: As someone who works in an industry that largely depends on attracting guests, what role does the fact that Baltimore’s population is roughly 65% Black play in how the city is viewed in the region and the nation?

Bass: I think the way the press presents our population in Baltimore can be very negative sometimes.

I mean, there’s a lot of very positive things happening in the city from the Black community. (But) when you (only) see crime statistics, you know, like they’re solely focusing on the bad things about Baltimore, and (ignoring) the creative class — the people who are shifting culture in our city creating new opportunities.

I think there’s a huge miss in how we present the largest part of our community.

TDR: You’ve mentioned some of the gatekeeping that goes on and how you need someone to kind of vouch for you in certain places. Are we talking more in a business sense, as an entree into business, or in just building relationships?

Bass: If you look at how, socially, the city is kind of broken up, it is very homogeneous, and somewhat segregated in certain areas, right.

Like Fells Point is what it is, you know, Harbor East, Canton and Fells Point can skew more white in a concentrated area.

The city’s 67 percent black, but there’s no real areas for us to go and to patronize (black-owned businesses). We don’t necessarily own enough restaurants or spaces to patronize, and I don’t always feel welcome in these other areas, right. Even the venue’s aren’t even speaking to us.

We’re a group of people that consume that should be paid attention to. We have buying power. It’s weird because when I would do Night Brunch, and we’d pop up at different venues around the city (with) a mixed demographic, but sometimes it was like 70 or 80% African-American.

I would get a question from the owner like, “Where are these people from? Where’s this group coming from that’s spending all of this money, and eating here?”

What I started to realize is the owners … they didn’t realize that this group, this segment of consumers, even existed in the city that’s like 70% Black.

How do you not know that they exist? It’s because you’re not even trying to identify those people, not even trying to attract those people, or speak to those people.

It’s all tied together. It’s just a mentality that I think has to be broken down and reformed, just some of the other things we’re talking about around the country.

TDR: Do you have any ideas or suggestions about ways some of these businesses can do a better job of reaching out and … making sure their places are attractive and marketing to the crowd that they weren’t sure existed prior to having the Night Brunch?

Bass: Yeah,  I think that these venues have to really start to look internally first. Do they have any kind of practices that could seem off-putting or unwelcoming? Is there a dress code? (Does) this dress code unfairly target a certain group of people by the things that are listed on the dress code? I would probably say (start) reviewing internal practices, and procedures, and the internal culture.

Then I would look at creating experiences with people that you can build a relationship with that can help market your business in that space.

There’s not a ton of … black-owned companies here. So you can’t exactly reach out to them in order to promote your business. So you might have to find someone who’s trusted in the community, that has some influence that would be able to let people know and guide them in and host them (as they) experience your establishment.

That’s a good way to start. It’s very grassroots. This town … believes in personal relationships over everything. I think that (businesses should) try some things out, and from there learn as you go along, and then from there you can start to advertise or reach out to larger organizations to host events or invite them in with a discount.

You know, we do discounts all the time in restaurants where we target a college, or we target a hospital, or we’ll target a luxury apartment building (where we say), “Hey, if you live in this building you can get 20% off by showing your ID” or whatever, right.

Why can’t we do that same thing at an institution or organization that skews more African-American?