When the Johns Hopkins University board met last November to talk about an initiative aimed at improving the city's economic prospects by hiring more local and minority-owned firms and more local and minority workers, one trustee asked why more prominent Baltimore companies and institutions weren't doing the same.
"We were in," said the trustee who posed the question, Michael D. Hankin, CEO of Brown Advisory. "I turned to Blake Cordish from the Cordish Cos., and he said they were in."
And so it went around the table, with T. Rowe Price Group, DLA Piper, Under Armour and others agreeing to join in. Calls went out to other notable firms. After several months of organizing, the group came together Monday at Zion Baptist Church several blocks north of Johns Hopkins Hospital to announce a 25-company commitment called BLocal.
The initiative aims to create a sustained force for jobs for minority- and women-owned businesses and residents of Baltimore's most distressed neighborhoods, many of whom expressed frustration and hopelessness after the riots sparked by the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody nearly a year ago.
BLocal participants have pledged about $69 million in jobs, contracts, goods and services, and Hopkins officials say they've set up a system to recruit more businesses, steer them to local resources and track their efforts.
"People wanted to be a part of this," said Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels. "We hope to start something that we find in 10 years' time really had a marked influence. The devil is in the details."
Daniels said a system had to be developed to let the companies know where to find local contractors and service providers, as well as potential workers, including ex-offenders, from downtrodden neighborhoods like Gray's. Some companies don't hire entry-level workers, but they could hire local companies for renovations or catering, for example, or encourage workers to live in the city.
The initiative is modeled after the Hopkins program called HopkinsLocal. The hospital, for example, hired 174 ex-offenders last year, said Ronald R. Peterson, president of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, which launched a separate effort last year among Baltimore-area hospitals to hire 1,000 workers from low-income neighborhoods. The hospitals won state approval to raise rates enough to pay for about 375, and the program is still in the works.
Other companies, including BGE, also already had programs but wanted to connect with the overarching effort.
"My job is to make a difference in the communities we serve," said BGE CEO Calvin G. Butler Jr., who will co-chair the effort with Daniels and Peterson. "Our commitment is made stronger by joining with others who care deeply for Baltimore to share knowledge and help direct resources where they make the biggest difference. BLocal gives us a platform to make important and meaningful connections."
So far, the companies involved in BLocal expect to invest $53 million in renovation and construction projects and $16 million in purchasing goods and services from minority- and women-owned business over the next three years. Companies could choose to invest more, and officials expect more companies to sign on.
The companies are coordinating with Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, or BUILD, a group of civic and church leaders and community members that has developed its own jobs program. The Rev. Marshall F. Prentice, pastor at Zion, noted that Monday was the anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which, like Gray's death, sparked unrest in the city and showed that there were "two Baltimores."
He said the companies behind BLocal could show there is finally a "turning point."
Others said the challenge is getting people to work together, especially once the initial enthusiasm for contributing dies down.
"We can't sustain progress if we exist in silos, our own spaces," said Michael Cryor, chair of OneBaltimore, a public-private effort formed after the Gray unrest to tackle community problems. "'Unless we are able to establish connective tissue, we will struggle."
A representative for minority firms who read about the effort said he applauded it but also wanted to see how it fared in the long term. Wayne Frazier Sr., CEO of Maryland Washington Minority Companies, called BLocal the most significant minority and woman inclusion effort he has ever seen in Baltimore.
"Hail to the life of Freddie Gray because, if what happened last year didn't happen, we may not be at this point today," he said.
Frazier said he just hoped the effort didn't turn out to be lip service. He saw particular potential for more diversityin professional industries such as accounting services.
"I am not looking at minority companies just to come in and serve as janitors in their building," Frazier said.
Daniels said the idea was to attract talented individuals who had not been given opportunities. Part of the initiative also called for creating a contractor's college to provide training to local businesses to help them better compete for work.
More information for firms that want to join the effort and people looking for employment will be available on the BLocal website, blocalbaltimore.org. Information on what's already been pledged by the 25 participating can be found on the site.
The companies are 1st Mariner Bank, A&R Development, ABS Capital Partners, Banks Contracting Co., BCT Architects, Beatty Development, BGE, Brown Advisory, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Cordish Cos., Cushman & Wakefield, DLA Piper, Grant Thornton LLP, Hogan Lovells, the Johns Hopkins University & Health System, KPMG, Legg Mason, M&T Bank, OneBaltimore, PwC, RSM, T. Rowe Price, Under Armour, Whiting-Turner and WPM Real Estate Management.