M.J. "Jay" Brodie: Economic development chief will retire after 16 years

When asked 16 years ago to head Baltimore's economic development agency, M.J. "Jay" Brodie really didn't want the job.

The 75-year-old Brodie, who will retire from the Baltimore Development Corp. after serving as president under four mayors, is credited with helping to usher in major waterfront redevelopment, strengthen neighborhood commercial districts and attract and retain employers.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Brodie will leave a legacy as a major contributor to the city's continuing renaissance.

In an interview Thursday with The Sun, Brodie, a former city housing commissioner, talked about why he decided to leave the private sector, where he had headed an office for architecture firm RTKL Associates Inc. in Washington, to lead the development agency under Mayor Kurt Schmoke in 1996.

He discussed his accomplishments and addressed some of the criticism, including complaints that the agency relied too heavily on tax breaks to lure developers. Despite his initial misgivings about the job in 1996, he said it turned out to be the most rewarding part of his career.

When you were first asked to consider the job as Baltimore Development Corp. 16 years ago, what was your initial reaction?

When I was asked to come, I declined. I had been asked to be on a committee to review [BDC]. Those of us on the committee, we didn't like what we saw [regarding lack of openness and responsiveness to businesses]. We made three recommendations [such as appointing a new board and a new head] and bringing in a development coordinator to work with … city agencies, all of which Mayor Schmoke accepted. When I was offered the job, I talked with my wife, who was my main adviser, who said, "You want us to lower our lifestyle to go back to the public sector?"

What changed your mind?

I've always had a love affair with Baltimore. I love cities. And I saw it as a place you can accomplish results.

How have you managed to survive multiple regime changes, since new mayors tend to bring in their own people?

My promise to each mayor has been that our role is not to be mayor but to give the best objective professional advice. And since I have been here, we instituted cost/benefit studies showing jobs and taxes [that would be generated by a new development or program.]

What are you most proud of?

I'm most proud of the neighborhood stuff. I remember telling Mayor Schmoke I'm interested in doing neighborhood development, not just downtown. We became more neighborhood-focused over the years. Small merchants often fight with each other, and we tried to get people together, [while helping improve] streetscapes, facades and offering low-interest loans.

What have been the biggest changes to downtown during your time at BDC?

It has changed in profound ways. [Ten years ago,] who lived downtown? Nobody.

There was one block built in Harbor East, with Sylvan [Learning Systems] and the Promenade apartments and a parking lot. We said to [John] Paterakis, how can we help? A BDC recommendation, with the leadership of Schmoke, led to a PILOT [payment in lieu of taxes] for the Marriott. At the time we needed two things, more tourists and more hotel rooms.

It's a much more cosmopolitan city.

What have critics said about the agency under your leadership?

We've been accused of being aggressive and pushy. But we should be a promoter and an aggressive advocate of the city.

How has the role of the agency changed over the years?

Commercial revitalization, [formerly under the auspices of the city housing department] was added to BDC, which became Main Streets. [At the time,] Mayor O'Malley said, "You know how to finish projects."

There have been proposals from the City Council to halt tax breaks for developers until the process becomes more transparent and includes more projects outside downtown. What are your thoughts on that?

The BDC's role is looking at the economics. Is there an end to incentives? Incentives [help offset] property taxes and costs of parking garages.

What have been some of the challenges in luring large employers to town?

We have perception problems in Baltimore. A financial services company wanted to know is it safe to send kids to public schools. People considering business decisions read every news clip and talk to people who have left. Bringing in Morgan Stanley [to Harbor Point] with 600 jobs was a great success.

Why have you decided to retire now?

It just seemed like this was a good time. I'd like to have time of my own and skate a little more and read a few things that are not BDC memos. I'm very peaceful about the notion of a less intense work life.


See more business leaders interviewed by The Baltimore Sun

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