City hotel can provide a start for jobs plan

Dan Rodricks

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DEAR BALTIMORE City Council: Several of you are questioning the proposal to have the city finance the construction of a $305 million hotel to give the downtown convention business a boost. You're in rare form. We're not used to the City Council doing this sort of thing - challenging the mayor, demanding a better deal for taxpayers. I'm impressed.

Seven years ago, when the city needed a convention center headquarters hotel, the lame-duck mayor, Kurt Schmoke, wanted to throw what amounted to a $45 million subsidy to Big John Paterakis for his Inner Harbor East hotel - a mile from the convention center. The City Council was only too happy to oblige, and you gave the handout to the millionaire developer for his hotel, now the Marriott Waterfront. The vote was 14-4.

Of course, we still don't have a convention headquarters hotel, which is why we have this proposal for a $305 million city-owned hotel that's actually attached to the convention center.

But, be that as it may ...

That was then, this is now. It's a different City Council, and you're doing what you're supposed to do - to challenge the mayor on a costly public project. As a citizen, I say: Thanks.

As a citizen, I also say: Get the jobs.

If you're going to approve the public financing of this hotel, with the Hilton corporation managing it, make sure you get the jobs, about 80 percent of them.

Let's make some noise. Use this occasion as a grand opportunity to provide something badly needed in this city - the training of chronically unemployed or underemployed citizens. If we're going to make history with this project, let's really make history. Let's have a first-class work force development plan to create a proud, drug-free and well-trained staff for the hotel.

We're talking about 300 to 400 jobs for Baltimoreans who show genuine willingness to change and to get into the mainstream. I know they're out there. I've spent the past two months speaking to dozens of them - men and women from 18 to 50 years of age who want out of the drug life, want out of the cycle of prison-to-street-to-prison.

We really need to give this a shot.

I think it's great that, in the negotiations to get you to approve this hotel, the O'Malley administration came up with a $59 million affordable housing trust fund to prime blighted areas for redevelopment.

But you have to redevelop people before you redevelop neighborhoods.

Unless we do something about our human problem - an estimated 40,000 drug addicts, some 200,000 citizens 16 and older without jobs, between 8,000 and 9,000 men and women returning here from prison every year - no amount of redevelopment in blighted neighborhoods will drive Baltimore into full-throttle, citywide renaissance.

I know: A few hundred hotel jobs won't even put a dent in those numbers. But it's a start on a grand plan that could break the culture of drugs and dysfunction that has ruined so many families and neighborhoods.

All the pieces of the plan are there. They just need to be coordinated.

The Mayor's Office of Employment Development has an ex-offenders initiative, headed by Felix Mata, dedicated to preparing our large prison-experienced population for the productive mainstream. There are other nonprofits and agencies that work to this same end - STRIVE Baltimore, Project Bridge, Goodwill of the Chesapeake, Living Classrooms, the Enterprise Foundation, to name a few. Housing, drug treatment, job training and jobs - that's what thousands of Baltimoreans need.

They need skills to find and maintain employment, and they need organizations, caseworkers and mentors to vouch for them and support them when they head into the working world, and for a time thereafter.

They also need employers willing to give them a chance.

That's not an easy sell - many companies aren't willing to even consider the ex-offender, no matter what the nature of his crime. Appealing to an executive's altruism isn't enough.

So someone, Mata or a Baltimore work force czar, needs to make businesses aware of what's in it for them - federal income tax credits (as much as $2,400 per worker) for hiring low-income former offenders; fidelity bonds of $5,000 against employee dishonesty or theft by job applicants with criminal records; reimbursement for on-the-job training; and matching funds for customized skills training.

Believe it or not, there are a lot of people in this town who view men and women now in prison or on the street - nonviolent drug offenders, in particular - as socially redeemable and capable of becoming law-abiding, productive citizens.

Bring these good people together, create a new work force for the new hotel from the vast numbers of Baltimoreans who want to break the rotten cycle of prison-to-street-to-prison. Fix the people, fix the city.
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