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Baltimore Development Corp. still in flux after months with new leader

Brenda McKenzie has yet to make her mark on the agency

By Natalie Sherman, The Baltimore Sun

1:24 PM EDT, March 31, 2014

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When the new head of the Baltimore Development Corp. started 15 months ago, she replaced a man who'd become synonymous with development in the city and accepted the task of changing the agency's focus from real estate deals to economic strategy.

Much of Brenda McKenzie's first year, however, has been consumed by projects she inherited, such as winning approval of controversial tax-increment financing for infrastructure at Harbor Point.

Many observers said McKenzie, who came to Baltimore from a similar job in Boston, has yet to place her stamp on the agency, one of the most complex and controversial in the city and one not used to change after 16 years under the leadership of M.J. "Jay" Brodie.

"Taking an organization over like the BDC is a gigantic task," said District 7 City Councilman Nick Mosby . "It's really hard to judge someone in that type of a position a year out."

"There were a couple of major things sitting on the table when Ms. McKenzie came in," said District 12 Councilman Carl Stokes, pointing to Harbor Point, the Remington Walmart and the new ShopRite in Howard Park. "She and the staff had to clear those from their agenda, from the table so to speak, and so we don't know quite yet what the next emphasis might be."

The problem she faces is persuading a skeptical public that the BDC has changed, even while many remain unclear about the city's broader vision for economic development.

"I don't know how to characterize their operation," said Ronald Kreitner, executive director of Westside Renaissance, a nonprofit affiliated with lawyer Peter Angelos, who owns the Orioles and numerous properties in the city. "It appears almost that it's still in a holding pattern. There's just not a lot to say."

McKenzie, 46, described her time so far as a "year of transition." She said she has worked to push forward the projects she inherited, as well as become more responsive to the needs of a broader range of businesses and the public. For example, after Santoni's Supermarket closed in the fall, the BDC organized a meeting with grocers in the city to discuss their concerns.

In June, the BDC is expected to present a new economic strategy to the city, a document that a consultant has been assembling since last fall. The process involved community meetings, an online survey that drew more than 1,000 responses and in-person interviews with about 200 stakeholders.

"In the last year, we've been talking about what we do and how we do it," McKenzie said. "I see the BDC as encouraging and facilitating investment in the city, whether it be businesses that are looking to grow, developers who are looking to build or individuals who are looking to live and have their family here."

McKenzie, who talks about "leveraging" and, like Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, speaks of a "holistic" development approach, said she hopes to build stronger partnerships between the BDC and other Baltimore institutions, such as banks and universities. She also wants the BDC to introduce new tools to help small businesses, attract jobs that provide opportunities to people with different education levels, and approach development with more of an eye toward neighborhoods.

"The mayor's charge was that she wanted to start fresh and she wanted to have a very open and inclusive process moving forward," said McKenzie, who moved to a home in the Woodberry-Hampden area last June. "This is a marathon, it's certainly not a sprint."

The Rawlings-Blake administration said it already has taken steps toward reorienting economic development to small business. Last year, the mayor launched a BDC-administered microloan program targeted at small businesses.

This month, Rawlings-Blake announced the creation of the Minority Business Development Agency at the Johns Hopkins University, funded by a three-year, $900,000 federal grant that will be overseen by her office. She said she has provided support to the Main Streets groups focused on the city's commercial corridors, as well as to accelerators designed to foster start-ups.

Rawlings-Blake said she has confidence in McKenzie's ability to achieve the mayor's goals for the city.

"I've tried to be clear about my vision for economic development in the city — that it's more inclusive," Rawlings-Blake said. "This is about having a vibrant and vital city and making sure that economic development supports all of that, supports our growth sectors, connects people with jobs and continues to fight for opportunities. You can see that all over the city. Whether or not it's artfully articulated, the vision is being actualized every single day."

Jason Hardebeck, a partner with the health information technology accelerator DreamIt Ventures, said the technology community "relatively recently" has been included in the economic development conversation. That's a sign, he said, that the city's concept of development has started to expand beyond tax breaks and real estate to infrastructure and quality of life questions.

"It's telling that it's only been the last couple years that I've had the opportunity to see how the sausage is made," Hardebeck said. "We didn't really have an opportunity to interact."

Others remain unconvinced. So far, the microloan program, for example, has disbursed a total of $175,000 to small business, with another nine applications worth $260,000 in the pipeline, according to an update provided Thursday to the BDC board.

"Honestly, what you see is the same kind of rhetoric around the need to do small business and the need to talk to the community, and then what you've seen is just allocating multimillion dollar development subsidies to multinational corporations and well-connected developers," said John Duda, an activist and co-founder of Red Emma's, a "radical" bookstore, vegetarian restaurant and coffee house in Station North. "That's been the pattern for a really long time, and I don't see anything substantial to think that is going to change under the current head of the BDC or the current administration."

District 4 City Councilman Bill Henry said there's a difference between a real estate person and economic developer running the BDC. "I think Brenda is more of an economic development person … but I haven't seen any actual signs of that yet," he said.

David Hillman, CEO of Southern Management Corp., said he has been frustrated by a lack of progress on the west side, where many of his buildings are located, as well as by the lack of support from the BDC for identifying possible businesses to replace the Fresh & Green's that closed in one of his buildings in December.

"The city's not helping and they're not hurting. At the moment, they're just doing nothing," Hillman said. "They've got a lot of studies and a lot of talks and a lot of people going to meetings and talking about what they're going to do at their next meeting."

Kreitner, of Westside Renaissance, said small businesses need better city services, not new programs. He said plans rarely drive major change.

"It's often very small things that give somebody confidence about the future, and new programs and acronyms aren't as convincing as the reality of what it's like to walk to work or what it's like to have your customers approach your business," Kreitner said. "The change needs to come internally and organically here in Baltimore."

One of the most visible signs of change at the BDC so far is staff turnover: About a dozen people have left the roughly 40-person agency since January 2013, including go-to employees on west side projects and Harbor Point. This week, McKenzie explained a staff reorganization to her board that divided the city into geographical quadrants and placed one person in charge of each.

McKenzie declined to go into specifics about the departures, citing privacy related to personnel issues, but she said they testified to the talent of the staff and did not reflect on her leadership.

"The fact that people come into an organization highly motivated, stay for a number of years, get a wonderful track record — that makes them highly marketable and highly sought after," she said. "Attrition is a natural thing."

In recent weeks, McKenzie has begun to make more of a public mark, proposing a new focus area for former industrial properties in East Baltimore. The area would entitle businesses that locate there to expanded tax breaks, a way to try to reactivate those sites. It sailed through a City Council committee Thursday, a sign of improved communication, said District 10 City Councilman Ed Reisinger.

Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler said he has been encouraged by the city's efforts to sell properties it owns downtown and on the west side. The meetings about the economic strategy in which Fowler has participated are offering a good road map for McKenzie and the BDC.

"It's a complex agency, and it's going to take some time for her to put her stamp on it," he said.

nsherman@baltsun.com