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She bridged neighborhoods and Sagamore for Port Covington deal. Can she do the same for Hopkins?

She bridged neighborhoods and Sagamore for Port Covington deal. Can she do the same for Hopkins?
Alicia Wilson was named one of The Baltimore Sun's 25 Women to Watch in 2016. She's pictured here at the City Garage in Port Covington. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

A chief negotiator on the $5.5 billion Port Covington project will leave Kevin Plank’s private real estate team to lead economic development for Johns Hopkins, directing both its education and health care investments.

Alicia Wilson, a 36-year-old attorney from Baltimore’s Frankford neighborhood, will join Hopkins in late July as a vice president after shepherding a $100 million community benefits deal that requires Sagamore Development Co. to train and hire local workers, help build community amenities and provide loans with zero interest to startup businesses owned by minorities and women.

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At Hopkins, Wilson will be charged with overseeing ongoing projects, including the more than $1.5 billion redevelopment initiative near the East Baltimore medical campus.

“Our city is at an inflection point,” said Wilson, a graduate of Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School who lives in the neighborhood where she grew up. “The opportunity to do economic development with a driver of economic development in the city is really a chance of a lifetime. And that is development that is at the intersection of neighborhoods and education and community and business.”

As part of a coalition of six South Baltimore neighborhoods, Keisha Allen of Westport sat across from Wilson at the negotiating table when they worked out the agreement three years ago with Sagamore to build amenities for the residents of neighborhoods surrounding Port Covington, such as athletic fields, a business incubator and library. The massive waterfront development project — which was granted $660 million in public financing for roads, utilities and other infrastructure — is to transform the industrial peninsula with a new Under Armour campus, offices, shops and homes.

Allen said Wilson was a master collaborator who was honest and direct.

“She was very understanding of our fears, our concerns, our needs, and just assured us that we weren’t going to be played around with,” said Allen, who heads her neighborhood association. “She’s very relatable. She’s like everybody’s cousin.”

In her new role, Wilson will have to navigate long-standing tensions between Hopkins and the community — from the unauthorized use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells in medical research to the creation of a private police force and the controversial relocation of more than 700 families for the 88-acre development project close to the hospital. The East Baltimore Development Initiative launched 15 years ago to turn the area into a thriving biotech hub that also provides pathways for the displaced families to move back.

City Councilman Robert Stokes, who represents East Baltimore, said many in the community remain angry with Hopkins, and he hopes Wilson can help resolve the old feelings. He wants to see her work with residents, especially those who are African American, and provide opportunities for them to enroll in apprenticeship programs or realize their dreams to become entrepreneurs.

“She’s from East Baltimore and she understands,” Stokes said.

Wilson, who was raised about 5 miles from the hospital, said she believes Hopkins’ future does not need to be defined by its past. She wants to make sure the institution refocuses and pivots when necessary and builds trust by making sure promises are matched by actions.

She said she learned from the negotiations between the residents and Sagamore that there is no shortcut to community engagement.

“It really takes time and effort,” Wilson said. “People who live in the communities are really the experts and should be the driving force for the change they seek.”

Wilson will report directly to the university president, Ronald J. Daniels, and the president of the health system, Kevin Sowers. She will run the newly created Office of Economic Development out of the Homewood campus. Hopkins declined to disclose her salary.

Daniels said Wilson brings a depth of knowledge and experience and shares Hopkins’ “deep and abiding commitment to the success of Baltimore and the region.”

Sowers said Wilson can help Hopkins and the city reach common goals.

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“With our existing programs, to be grown and expanded under Alicia’s strong leadership, a clearer picture emerges of a rejuvenated Baltimore that reflects our collective aspirations,” Sowers said in a statement.

Through her office, Wilson will guide the economic development aspects of many key initiatives. Besides the East Baltimore redevelopment project, she will oversee HopkinsLocal, a 4-year-old initiative under which it has hired more than 1,000 Baltimore residents living in distressed communities and boosted spending with city vendors by $54 million. She also will help direct the Homewood Community Partners Initiative, a 7-year-old strategy that seeks to attract 3,000 new households and foster a vibrant urban center with retail, entertainment and high-quality schools.

Wilson joined Sagamore in 2016. She serves as senior vice president of impact investments and senior legal counsel for Port Covington Impact Investments and is Sagamore’s legal adviser and vice president of community affairs. Previously, she spent eight years as a labor and employment and litigation partner at the Gordon Feinblatt law firm downtown. Some have encouraged her to run for mayor in 2020, but Wilson said she is not interested.

A graduate of both University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Maryland School of Law, Wilson is an alumna — and now chairwoman — of the CollegeBound Foundation that helps low-income and first-generation Baltimore students earn degrees. At UMBC, Wilson was a Sondheim Public Affairs Scholar and earned the highly competitive Harry S. Truman Scholarship.

She made headlines last year when Michelle Obama called to ask her to select 150 city school students to attend a stop on the former first lady’s book tour in Washington. Tickets for Obama’s 10-city tour were going for $29 to $3,000 apiece.

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Wilson met Obama through a mutual friend and once had the chance to share dinner with her. In the fall phone call, Obama asked Wilson how many kids she wanted to bring.

“I said 50, and she said dream a little bigger,” Wilson recalled at the time.

State Sen. Cory McCray said Wilson has the chance to unleash great potential in the city. He called her leadership on the negotiations between Sagamore and the community “visionary,” in part because of the way she “elevated the voices of those who usually don’t have their voices elevated.”

Her true challenge, he said, as a major player in Baltimore’s economic development scene will be whether her work will make a difference for the children who fill the classrooms at schools like Tench Tilghman Elementary/Middle School, a half mile from Hopkins medical campus.

“You’ve got all of the” pieces, he said. “It’s about how you put the puzzle together.”

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