Big business and the inner city

What can the GBC do about fixing post-Freddie Gray Baltimore? Plenty.

On Monday night, as City Council members pressed Baltimore officials on the costs of the recent rioting that damaged 350 businesses and cost the city untold amounts in expenses for police, fire fighters and clean-up crews, the region's business leaders were mingling over cocktails at the Greater Baltimore Committee's annual meeting. But it was far from business as usual. An organization best known for championing big projects like Charles Center, the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards — which attendees could peer into from the windows of the Baltimore Hilton — suddenly found itself grappling to address the inner city neighborhoods a few miles and a few worlds away. At the urging of GBC CEO Don Fry, members texted pledges from their cell phones throughout the dinner, eventually raising more than $200,000 to help restoration efforts. But more significant is the change of course for the organization signaled by the group's new chairman, investor and philanthropist David Warnock, who identified development of inner city Baltimore as a moral and economic imperative in the wake of Freddie Gray's death and the mayhem that followed.

It's not that the group, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary, had never dabbled in issues of social and economic justice before. In the 1990s, it helped lead the conversation about treating drug addiction as a public health rather than criminal justice issue, and it has long worked to encourage private sector businesses to provide summer employment for inner city youth and to help in the development of minority- and women-owned businesses. And it's not that the GBC is abandoning its push for things like a new arena and convention center expansion or the Inner Harbor 2.0 plan. But the need to provide economic opportunity in neighborhoods like Freddie Gray's has clearly taken on a new centrality in the organization's mission.

"Let's not just talk about the goal — a great one — of bringing 10,000 families to Baltimore. What about building 10,000 companies in Baltimore?" Mr. Warnock said.

That's a great idea. The question is how.

Mr. Warnock noted the thriving entrepreneurial culture in Baltimore, fueled by the influx of millennials into the city. The GBC has sought to foster it by providing mentorship to young executives and by advocating in Annapolis for an angel investor tax credit. Mr. Warnock also pointed to an increased effort by both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland Baltimore to commercialize the scientific and medical advances their faculties are making, and to the successes of the east and west Baltimore bio-parks.

Meanwhile, he talked about the need to improve employment opportunities for those who have had brushes with the criminal justice system by allowing automatic expungement of charges that don't lead to convictions, and he urged businesses to re-evaluate their policies concerning the hiring of ex-offenders. That's not exactly a reversal of the GBC's criticism of Baltimore's "ban the box" initiative, but it certainly represents a change in emphasis. Mr. Warnock also suggested a need to reform policies that lead to the garnishment of wages for those who leave prison but owe back child support — a system, he says, that increases the temptation to work in the underground economy of the drug trade.

We agree wholeheartedly about the importance both of fostering Baltimore's high-tech entrepreneurial economy and of removing barriers to employment that affect many in inner-city neighborhoods. We just wonder whether there's much nexus between the two. Removing barriers to employment doesn't do much good if there aren't decent job openings to match the skills of the people in question, and the track record so far of the city's tech industry of providing such opportunities, despite some good intentions, has been limited at best.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young has been particularly attuned to this issue, and on Monday he called for several city agencies to report back with suggestions on how to boost inner city economic development. That's helpful, but if the city government had the answers, we'd like to think it would already have implemented them. The GBC, by contrast, has decades of experience in advocating for business friendly policies; it just hasn't necessarily been thinking about them in terms of the needs of struggling businesses in poor communities.

Some of the organization's eight "core pillars" of economic competitiveness apply in the inner city as well as downtown. "Regulatory policies that are streamlined, stable and predictable" might well be applied to the professional licensing rules that block would-be entrepreneurs. And the need for "superior transportation infrastructure with reliable funding" applies not just to important mega-projects like the Red Line but also to reliable and affordable bus service. There's no small irony that the city provides free, frequent and reliable bus service to many of its most affluent areas but not to poor ones.

But the most useful role the GBC could play may be embodied by Mr. Warnock's exhortation that "in the post-Freddie Gray period, we need to talk with and listen to people we ordinarily wouldn't talk with." He promised a new cross-community dialogue to help develop an economic agenda that unites all of Baltimore's interests. We urge him to follow through.

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