Whatever the reason for Brenda McKenzie's decision to leave as head of the Baltimore Development Corporation after just two years, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake made a shrewd move by recruiting City Councilman William H. Cole IV to take her place. Ms. McKenzie never fully gelled with the downtown business community that has traditionally been the BDC's chief constituency, but Mr. Cole, who has represented the central business district for two terms on the council, has immediate credibility in that area. His presence will instantly calm any tensions, and he will have some standing to referee the ongoing tug-of-war between Baltimore's traditional downtown and the burgeoning Harbor East area.
But to what end? The BDC was a creature of the William Donald Schaefer-era "do it now" focus on cutting deals for big projects, and over the years it developed a reputation (not entirely unfairly) as a somewhat secretive organization whose raison d'etre was steering tax breaks to waterfront developers. Ms. McKenzie, as an outsider to Baltimore and only the BDC's second president after M.J. "Jay" Brodie, offered the promise of a fresh perspective, but she was not here long enough to leave much of a mark. Her vision of transforming the BDC from an entity primarily focused on real estate development to one devoted to a broader economic strategy was a good one, but it was largely unrealized, as she spent much of her time on legacy projects like Harbor Point. A city economic development plan that could have served as a roadmap for the rest of her tenure is unfinished and overdue.
Mr. Cole has in the past shown some inclination toward the "game-changer" mentality that has traditionally been associated with the BDC — he was a big backer of the controversial Harbor Point tax increment financing deal and a chief booster for the ill-fated Baltimore Grand Prix. But in an interview today, he sketched out a broader vision for the organization's role, saying it needs to give th e same attention to small and minority-owned businesses as it does to a Fortune 500 company and that neighborhood-level commercial development is one of the keys to maintaining and growing Baltimore's population.
Mr. Cole lives in Federal Hill, one of the most vibrant urban neighborhoods in the city, and that should give him insight into fostering the development of up-and-coming communities like Remington, Hampden, Hamilton/Lauraville, Patterson Park and Station North. After all the criticism the BDC has gotten over the years for its attention to downtown developers, it would be nice to see the organization start putting together some neighborhood-level TIF deals or working on redeveloping vacant property across the city.
Baltimore's businss community can be insular and parochial, and too often it appears fixated on the notion of fighting over a shrinking economic pie rather than finding ways to expand it. Whether Ms. McKenzie was ever given a real chance in that environment is a fair question. Mr. Cole, however, comes into the job with real advantages. At 41, he is emblematic of a new generation of young professionals who have moved into the city, yet he also has the trust of the older generation of business leaders. He speaks their language and understands the alliances and decades-old rivalries that can determine what does and does not get built here. At the same time, he clearly has the ear of the mayor, of whom he has been a reliable supporter. That gives him credibility as a decision-maker and the standing to tell the mayor no when he has to.
Now he has to execute. There are big projects that need a push — the West Side and State Center redevelopment projects, for example — but also thousands of smaller, untapped opportunities throughout the city. He will need to recruit new staff to an organization that has seen some significant turnover in the last few years, and he might also be well served to shake up the BDC's board. And as he does all this, he needs to bring more transparency to an organzation that has historically lacked it.
Can he do all that? He doesn't have the kind of direct experience that Mr. Brodie or Ms. McKenzie had. But he does have the fortune of having worked for the University of Baltimore under its now former President Robert Bogomolny, a leader who knew how to develop a vision and bring it to fruition. The now delayed economic development roadmap Ms. McKenzie instigated will be his opportunity to start that process. Mr. Cole needs to place his stamp on that plan, use it to set out clear goals and expectations, and meet them.
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