City Council Luncheon

Baltimore City Council Members, Robert Curran and Rochelle "Rikki" Spector greet William H. Cole IV (left to right) before the City Council Luncheon. (Chiaki Kawajiri, Baltimore Sun / August 11, 2014)

In two terms on the Baltimore City Council, William H. Cole IV has earned a reputation as an enthusiastic champion of downtown development.

That history — and his close ties to the business community — make him a great choice to jump-start the Baltimore Development Corp., his many supporters say.

"He understands the balance that's needed between business interests and community interests," says Aris Melissaratos, interim dean of the business school at Stevenson University. He called Cole's appointment "a master stroke."

But critics see Cole's record as a reason to be concerned. Rachel Kutler, an advocate for low-wage workers, faults his support for subsidies for upscale projects, such as the Harbor Point development soon to rise next to Harbor East.

"Councilman Cole's voting record shows he supported policies that increased the sense of polarity in Baltimore," said Kutler, an organizer for United Workers.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake chose Cole last week as the new president of the BDC, the city's quasi-public development agency. Cole will be just the third person in the agency's 18-year history to hold that title. And he has a very different background from the previous two.

M.J. "Jay" Brodie was a former Baltimore housing commissioner and had run an economic development corporation in Washington for a decade before he went to the BDC. Brenda McKenzie, who announced her resignation last week, came to Baltimore after leading economic development efforts in Boston. She has a master's in urban planning.

By contrast, Cole, 41, is a University of Baltimore vice president and member of the City Council, where he has been a reliable supporter of the mayor. He's also chairman of the board of Cecil Bank. That experience, he says, makes him well qualified for the $190,000-a-year job.

"If you ask anyone about a development project in my district, they will tell you I played a very active role," Cole says. "There's no definitive course you take for doing this job. If I had an urban planning background, someone might say, 'Why don't you have a marketing degree?' It's somewhat irrelevant when you have real-world experience.

"That said, I must make sure there are very talented people at the BDC to do things I might not have all the answers for."

During his time on the council, Cole has been a key supporter of downtown economic development projects, such as the Baltimore Grand Prix IndyCar race and a proposed tower on Pratt Street.

But he says his vision for the agency is to focus on much more than just downtown — and that he plans to make neighborhood and small-business development a hallmark of his tenure.

"It's not an either-or situation," Cole said. "A healthy commercial district downtown helps neighborhoods. Healthy neighborhoods help support commercial districts."

But Cole also rejects the notion that the BDC has been primarily focused on downtown's waterfront. While many of the agency's taxpayer-funded subsidies have been on the water — including the Harborview and Harbor Point projects — Cole notes that often they have not been.

Mondawmin Mall, Clipper Mill and Belvedere Square, for instance, have all received taxpayer assistance through the agency. Recently, a new grocery store opened up in Howard Park with assistance from the BDC.

"I don't think it's a fair criticism of BDC. They've done a lot of stuff over the years in the neighborhoods," Cole said. "They've got men and women right now working in neighborhoods."

McKenzie led the agency for less than two years. She said last week she was resigning for personal and family reasons and will leave later this month. During ther tenure, some in the business community have said they were concerned about a lack of urgency on some development issues, including that she hadn't created a new plan for the agency or sought new proposals to develop the so-called Superblock on downtown's west side.

"She offered her resignation, and we mutually agreed that it was best that she step down to deal with her family matter," said Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake.

Melissaratos, a former secretary of Maryland's Department of Business and Economic Development, said he enthusiastically supports the mayor's choice of Cole, calling him "very substantive" and "one of our better public servants."

Melissaratos said he was not concerned that Cole doesn't have a business degree.