Mayor's race on the issues: economic development

Who has the best plans for economic development? Dixon and Embry.

April's unrest brought into stark relief the gaps between Baltimore's haves and have-nots, and as a result, the need to boost the economic prospects of all of the city's residents has taken a central role in the mayoral race. Virtually all of the major candidates have now issued detailed plans that address not only economic growth but also equity — though not all of them convincingly. Here are some highlights (and lowlights) of their plans:

Nick Mosby

City Councilman Nick Mosby's economic development plan focuses heavily on workforce issues. He aims to create a city task force to help provide free expungements of criminal records, pay fees for Baltimore residents who seek GEDs, cover the cost of vocational training at Baltimore City Community College in certain high-demand job sectors, subsidize apprenticeship programs and refund the income taxes for unemployed ex-offenders to the businesses that hire them. His plans reflect a real targeted commitment to helping those who are left behind in Baltimore's economy, but they also rest on some assumptions that may not pan out. Mr. Mosby includes calculations aiming to show that most of his proposals would be revenue neutral or even positive for the city in the long run, but they also presume that those who benefit from these programs would stay in the city long term or that they were paying no taxes previously.

Carl Stokes

City Councilman Carl Stokes also includes some workforce development plans, including efforts to help more Baltimoreans land jobs in the health care and technology sectors. But he places more focus on macro-level issues, such as re-evaluating the role of the Baltimore Development Corporation, particularly as it relates to providing tax incentives for the private sector — a long-time focus of Mr. Stokes on the council. He also proposes a blue ribbon task force to evaluate city regulations, licensing and permitting — something that is long overdue. Mr. Stokes wants to make Baltimore a hub of innovative start-up businesses and to work with "anchor institutions" like universities and hospitals to boost neighborhood-level economic development, but he doesn't provide sufficient detail about how his efforts would go beyond what the city does now.

DeRay Mckesson

When it comes to local hiring, activist DeRay Mckesson spells out exactly how he would do more than the city is now. He would beef up the city's local hiring initiative to require that 51 percent of all work hours on city contracts — not just 51 percent of new jobs — go to city residents, and he would include targets for hiring those on public assistance, the chronically unemployed, the formerly incarcerated and others. (Attorney Elizabeth Embry makes similar proposals.) That could prove challenging to enforce — particularly given that the city's law department considered the hiring law unconstitutional to begin with. But he also focuses on some areas other candidates do not in an effort to help poor city residents build wealth. For example, he would seek state help to crack down on payday lending and other predatory practices and work to provide alternatives. He would advocate for child support reforms, help ensure that residents receive public benefits and tax breaks for which they are eligible and work to limit civil fees, fines and forfeitures.

Sheila Dixon

Of the economic development plans issued so far, former mayor Sheila Dixon's is probably the most comprehensive, though Ms. Embry gives her a run for her money. It includes detailed plans for workforce development, boosting industries with high growth potential, revitalizing neighborhoods, reforming tax policies and re-evaluating city government. As with her crime plan, it includes a fair number of suggestions that we should simply go back to doing things the way we did when she was mayor — in her telling, for example, the near total failure of Baltimore's inclusionary housing law is to do with its implementation under the current administration, not its conception under hers.

But it also reflects experience in how a mayor can get things done — for example, in her suggestion that she would convene the city's hotel industry leaders to persuade them to follow the lead of Johns Hopkins and other anchor institutions in their buy-local campaigns. To her credit, she is the only candidate so far to mention the need for Baltimore to fix the rail links to the port and to replace the aging tunnels under the city that prevent double-stacking of freight cars. But she falls short by failing to endorse any particular plan for doing so. Ms. Dixon is right to criticize those who argue for a massive cut to the city's property tax rate as being unrealistic, but her commitment to making small annual reductions is questionable given her failure to do so when she was mayor.

Elizabeth Embry

Ms. Embry's plan covers much of the same ground as her rivals in terms of workforce development, support for entrepreneurs and reforms to city tax policy, though in more detail than most. For example, like several of the other candidates, she voices support for increasing access and competition in Baltimore's broadband Internet market, but she is the only one who has produced anything like a cohesive plan for how to accomplish that. Among other things, she would make better use of the city's conduit system and study the idea of the city creating its own network.

Her plan is also more insightful than others on issues that hold back economic development in the city now. She addresses problems of poor customer service from city agencies when it comes to licensing and permitting, as a number of candidates do, but she goes into more detail about potential solutions, including the further elimination of "minor privilege" fees that serve as a nuisance and disincentive to businesses. She points to the long-stalled effort to rewrite Baltimore's zoning code as a major impediment to economic development, and she rightly cites the need for stronger ethics laws to give investors confidence that they won't encounter a pay-to-play system in the city.

The others

State Sen. Catherine Pugh has issued a a general set of ideas for economic development, including a desire to "develop Baltimore into the premier incubator city on the East Coast," "string small, eclectic neighborhood oriented shops together to create scale," "develop small businesses to anchor healthy neighborhoods" and "capitalize upon our national and international relationships to expand and attract more businesses to Baltimore." A spokesman says she will issue more details soon. Businessman David Warnock has preached the need to bring more good jobs and economic opportunity to the city but has yet to publish a detailed plan to do so.

New ideas

In broad strokes, the candidates' plans mainly hew to well established ideas about how to boost economic activity in the city. Most address the desire to revise the way Baltimore uses tax incentives to ensure they benefit neighborhoods away from the downtown core. Most seek to build on recent efforts by Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland Baltimore and other anchor institutions to revitalize their surrounding communities. Most deal with the need for more job training and help for those whose criminal records make it difficult to find employment. And most look for ways to improve the city's transportation system in the wake of Gov. Larry Hogan's rejection of the Red Line — albeit some more realistically than others. Within that framework, though, Messrs. Mosby and Mckesson probably bring the most new ideas to the table — Mr. Mosby through bold workforce development initiatives and Mr. Mckesson through a holistic approach toward the many factors that keep city residents trapped in poverty.

One idea raised by both Ms. Dixon and Mr. Mckesson deserves particular attention, and that is fostering community land trusts as a means to expand the stock of affordable housing, protect against the ill effects of gentrification and where appropriate spark neighborhood-level commercial development. These non-profit entities are able to take possession of land and guide its use in a way that benefits the community. In Baltimore, they have mainly been used so far to assemble green space, but in other cities they are used more broadly. By retaining the deed to the land (in a way similar to, though not prone to the same abuses as, ground rent), these trusts are able to provide housing for low income individuals at below-market rates, thus helping to ensure economic diversity in gentrifying neighborhoods.

There are pros and cons to this arrangement, both for individual homeowners and communities, but community land trusts could serve as a useful tool in maintaining a healthy and equitable housing market. And now is the time to set them up — before rising property values make them unworkable. Expanding their presence in Baltimore should be on the next mayor's agenda, whoever he or she may be.

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