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Leaders call for regional approach to disparities

A group of thinkers from government, academia and nonprofits unveiled Monday the last piece of a three-year, $3.5 million plan outlining ways to address poverty and other deeply entrenched problems facing the Baltimore region.

The catch: It's not clear whether many of the proposals will come to fruition.

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The Opportunity Collaborative group compiled what it called a "first-ever" comprehensive regional plan for sustainable development. It includes more than 100 recommendations to improve the region's housing, transit and workforce development systems and to reduce the region's yawning socioeconomic gaps between wealthy areas like Howard County and the city's Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray was arrested.

"Do we have the courage to act?" said state Sen. Bill Ferguson, who sits on the board of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a regional planning group that led the creation of the Opportunity Collaborative's plan.

But even as 250 people gathered Monday at the Baltimore Museum of Industry to celebrate the report's release, some worried the ideas might not be embraced by the state's new governor and the region's diverse localities.

No new funding has been guaranteed to support the recommendations, officials said. And some of the policy recommendations have been around for years without gaining momentum.

The study was paid for by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The ideas in the report include expanding laws to require affordable housing in new construction projects; launching new shuttle services and transit routes to connect low income workers to jobs more efficiently; making it easier to expunge criminal records; and expanding funding for adult education classes.

"I don't think anything we've talked about is out of the realm of possibility," said Scot T. Spencer, associate director for advocacy and influence at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, who co-chaired the Opportunity Collaborative group, which included nonprofits, universities and public agencies from around the region.. "It really is about … how we make our choices."

Baltimore Development Corp. President William H. Cole IV said the problems highlighted by the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray underscore the importance of adopting regional strategies, particularly when it comes to making it easier for people to get to jobs.

"We know that the systemic problems that Baltimore City faces are regional problems," Cole said. "We need meaningful change not just in the city, but the region, so that Baltimore City and the surrounding counties can realize their full potential."

House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch, who has been promoting regional approaches to Baltimore's problems for several years, welcomed the report and said he hopes it is acted upon. But he doesn't know how the report fits with the policies of Gov. Larry Hogan.

"We don't have pride of ownership," he said. "We'd certainly like to work with the administration."

Hogan declined to comment on the report through a spokeswoman, saying he has not been briefed on it.

Last year, the General Assembly expanded the Baltimore Metropolitan Council's mission to explicitly include housing and workforce development. The legislative changes also expanded the board to include members of the legislature, not just people appointed by the cities and counties.

Ferguson, who filled one of the new legislative seats, said the changes will make it easier to identify areas where the state can support regional efforts and he is confident that people will act on the report.

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"The Baltimore region's history has not been filled with as much collaboration as may be ideal, but I think everybody's come to the realization that in the 21st century, it's metropolitan regions that are going to drive economic devleopment," he said. "This is our region's opportunity to do big things."

Others were less sure, with one audience member asking about the depth of county-level support and another questioning where the funding would come from.

Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of Baltimore's House delegation, said he foresees difficulties in getting more affluent neighborhoods to accept low-income residents — a key goal of the Opportunity Collaborative initiative.

"The only ones are in suburbs outside Baltimore, and there's a problem with that because you have folks who don't want that in their backyard," said Anderson, a Democrat.

While the Opportunity Collaborative's report provides a good outline for addressing the region's disparities, it's not clear how it will be implemented, said Richard Hall, who served as planning secretary under former Gov. Martin O'Malley and is now executive director at Citizens Planning & Housing Association Inc.

"The best blueprint we're going to have, in my view, to address a lot of these issues is coming out right now, a month after the uprising," he said. "So who's out there who's willing to run with it, to provide resources for the key recommendations in the report? I don't think there's an answer to that question."

The report outlined the depth of the region's problems, depicting the disparities in the region's opportunity on such issues as poverty, education, health and employment, tracing many of them to the region's legacy of structural racism and segregation.

The recommendations cover a broad range, focused primarily on expanding housing opportunity, improving transportation infrastructure and strengthening reional workforce development initiatives.

For example, it recommends that all localities require low-income housing in large projects and that Baltimore strengthen its inclusionary housing law. It also explicitly praises the potential of the proposed Red Line, which has drawn skepticism from Hogan, who still is deciding whether to proceed with the $3 billion light rail project connecting Woodlawn to Bayview.

And it proposes making it easier for Marylanders to expunge criminal records, citing surveys that show one in four people seeking work have a criminal background. In the last legislative session, the General Assembly approved bills, which were signed by Hogan, that allowed someone's record to be expunged if the crime they were convicted of is no longer a crime and allowed people convicted of any of 11 nonviolent misdemeanors to petition a court to shield that information from public inspection.

Those were among more than 100 specific recommendations contained within the report, many of which will require regional participation.

Carroll County Administrator Roberta Windham, who sits on the BMC board, declined to comment, referring questions to the BMC. A spokesman for Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh said he is reviewing the document, while a spokeswoman for Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said he had not reviewed it and is focused on updating the county's plan.

"The county executive appreciates the work of other regional and state agencies, but just as a general note, he really believes in local planning and we are working on our own countywide master plan," spokeswoman Cindy Mumby said.

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Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who chairs the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, in a statement called the report "timely" and said it provides a "solid framework" for future discussions. He pointed to county efforts to focus development around the Owings Mills metro stop and the $50 million committed to the Red Line project as ways the county's work is in line with the plan.

"Every county in the state, and particular[ly] those that comprise the BMC, has a keen interest in having the city succeed," Kamenetz said. "What's clear by this report is that we need every jurisdiction in the region to participate in facilitating solutions."

Michael Kelly, who led the Opportunity Collaborative and in January became executive director of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, said the report was crafted with input from staff from every county and he believes it has enough recommendations for all. Action committees with representatives from nonprofits and public agencies are in the works.

"There's something in there for everyone to do and the idea is that all of our partners around the region are going to work on the pieces that make sense for them to do," Kelly said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributing to this article.

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