Until last month, M.J. "Jay" Brodie was the only person to hold the title of president of the Baltimore Development Corp. since it was organized in the mid-1990s into its current form, with a largely private-sector board of directors.
What the city's nonprofit, economic development agency became during his time at the helm allowed for some of Baltimore's most admired economic progress in recent years, including the construction of Harbor East and the public offering of stock by Millennial Media Inc., the mobile advertising company that got its legs with help from a technology incubator founded during Brodie's tenure.
Now that Brenda McKenzie, a economic development officer coming from Boston, has taken on the title of president and CEO, she faces the same questions Brodie confronted 17 years ago: What should the BDC's priorities be and what are the best ways to achieve them?
"There's now a moment for the new leadership to step back and take a good, long look at the BDC — how it's structured and whether that fits with the 21st-century urban economic development challenge," said Mark Wasserman, a University of Maryland Medical System development official.
Excitement and curiosity about McKenzie's plans for the powerful organization are buzzing. And there's no shortage of suggestions about how the BDC, criticized in recent years for being opaque, losing its focus on job creation and aiming too many resources at downtown development, should be shaped to help the city compete.
"There's a heavy burden on her because all of us are expecting great things," said Gilberto de Jesus, a member of the BDC's board of directors. "But I think she's going to be able to deliver."
He has been impressed with McKenzie's initiative so far, he said. Soon after starting the job in mid-December, she reached out to him to gather ideas for enticing Hispanic businesses to relocate to Baltimore, said de Jesus, a leader of the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
McKenzie said she has been meeting with "stakeholders" from throughout Baltimore, gathering ideas and identifying needs for the organization.
She's taking her time to develop a plan for the organization, she said, and is going to take into account the input she receives on her listening tour when deciding what changes to make at the agency and how to fill vacancies. So far, everyone she's spoken with has offered to further collaborate with the agency, she said.
While the city was interviewing candidates for Brodie's replacement, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she wanted the BDC's new leader to expand the agency's focus on small businesses and strategize with anchor institutions, like the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins.
The mayor, McKenzie said, "is giving the organization time to assess" the economic needs of the city.
It might take a while. The BDC, a $9 million operation last year with a staff of about 40, does a lot — including commercial revitalization, business incubation, managing Baltimore's foreign trade zone and operating a small-business resource center. And everyone, it seems, has an opinion on what the BDC should be doing to make the city a more business-friendly — and livable — place.
"A typical economic development agency should focus on creating jobs," said David Hillman, founder and CEO of Southern Management Corp., a major developer of residential properties in Baltimore. "They've been doing it backward."
The BDC negotiates the sale of city-owned land and frequently negotiates tax breaks to encourage the redevelopment of underused property, with the expectation that jobs will follow. That's the wrong approach, Hillman said.
The BDC should allow the market to dictate which projects fly, Hillman said, and should not be in the business of financing projects through tax breaks.
"It's not right that they should put public money at risk, often with inexperienced developers," he said.
One of the BDC's most ardent critics, the watchdog group Another BDC is Possible, agrees that the process of negotiating tax breaks for developments should be reconsidered. More "imaginative" enticements should be thought up, said John Duda, an organizer for the group.
The group is primed to provide McKenzie with ideas for making the BDC more transparent and inclusive, he said. Among the other suggestions: Engage with neighborhood organizations and hold "neighborhood revitalization" forums to gather ideas and improve public access to meaningful metrics about BDC projects.
During years of planning for a grocery store in the Howard Park neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore, the BDC "excluded the community," said Kim Trueheart, an activist involved in both the Howard Park Civic Association and Another BDC is Possible.
That put the community at a disadvantage, she said. Without a seat at the table early on, the community could not insist on contract requirements for local hiring, for instance, Trueheart said.
Much of the BDC's work is done outside downtown. According to its 2010 annual report (the most recent one available), 89 of its 93 projects that year were in neighborhoods outside the city center.
Still, there long has been a perception that the BDC is not engaged with the neighborhoods where this public assistance is going.
"It just seems that the BDC is just so much more concerned with downtown," said Mel Freeman, executive director the Citizens Planning & Housing Association Inc., which supports community associations throughout the city.
The BDC's Main Streets division, which supports neighborhood business districts, is doing good work outside downtown, Freeman said, but he would like to see more of it. With increased support, more neighborhoods could look like Federal Hill, he said.
"A strong neighborhood community needs a strong walk-up business district," he said.
To expand neighborhood development, BDC board member Deborah Hunt Devan likes the idea of a neighborhood-business incubator, fashioned after the BDC's successful Emerging Technology Centers. These incubators provide space and business development resources to burgeoning companies — with the hope that they'll stay in the city when they thrive.
Having a neighborhood-focused person on BDC's board also could help shed more light on communities, Freeman suggested. One person can play an important part in shaping the group's opinion, he said.
The BDC board has 15 members, mostly from private companies, and is dominated by individuals with finance backgrounds. Four board members are from the mayor's office.
The perception that the BDC ignores the neighborhoods in favor of downtown development is symptomatic of the agency's poor self-promotion. At the December board meeting, after staff presentations were made to introduce McKenzie to each of the BDC's divisions, one director openly wondered to his colleagues why the agency's outdated website doesn't show off the staff's recent achievements.
Even Arnold Williams, the board's chairman and the only member who has served on the board since its inception in 1995, grades the BDC poorly when it comes to explaining what it does: "I don't believe the BDC does a good enough job in identifying all of the things that they do."
Duda and Trueheart hope that McKenzie's BDC will go beyond improving public relations and become more generous with the information it provides to the public about its activities.
"The BDC's annual reports are almost comical," said Duda, noting their lack of concrete numbers that reveal the returns on public dollars invested into private companies.
Amid the advice that will continue to bombard McKenzie is sure to be the suggestion to sustain work already begun.
"The BDC has done a good job of building on strength," said Andrew Frank, a former deputy mayor who now is an economic development adviser to the Johns Hopkins University's president.
In recent years, the BDC has started studying the needs of up-and-coming parts of the city and established institutions, and adding such necessities as housing around bustling biotech hubs.
It will be key for McKenzie to keep up the relationships with the hospitals and universities and focus on using them as jumping-off points for new endeavors, Frank said.
The BDC needs to emphasize the basics — helping businesses resolve bureaucratic issues like improper water bills and permitting challenges — to keep the city's current companies satisfied, said Baltimore City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger.
"The biggest job for Brenda … is to be an effective partner with the various stakeholders," said J. Thomas Sadowski, president and CEO of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore.
McKenzie said she's prepared to do that and she's ready to get out there and sell Baltimore. Charm City's like a restaurant that was recommended by a friend, she said. You expect it to be good, she explained. But then, when you get there, it isn't just OK — it knocks your socks off.
"It's so surprisingly good," she said.
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