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His great-grandfather rang the opening bell at Lexington Market. Now he’s redeveloping a neighboring block.

At 8 a.m. each morning from 1963 to 1971, James B. Carpenter, dressed in a top hat, white gloves and coattails, would ring Lexington Market’s historic, 200-pound bell to signal the start of the business day.

Carpenter, who ran a three-chair shoeshine and repair service inside the market, spent his “retirement” as the market’s official bell-ringer, after a long career working on steamships, docks and railroads, waiting tables and later owning and running a restaurant. He became “one of the most respected men in the market,” The Baltimore Sun reported in 1968, and something of a local celebrity.

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“There’s only one thing you can steal without getting locked up,” Carpenter, a son of enslaved people from Virginia, told a Sun reporter, “and that’s knowledge.”

A few years later, Carpenter, then 84, remarked to an Evening Sun reporter that he kept a packed schedule “so I don’t have time to die.”

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Decades later, Carpenter’s great-grandson, Jayson Williams, lives by his forefather’s work ethic as he strives to redevelop parts of Baltimore, including the so-called Superblock of defunct retail stores that ties Lexington Market to the core of downtown Baltimore. The West Baltimore native is the CEO of Mayson-Dixon Cos., a one-stop development firm that includes a construction company and a building supplier, as well as consultants and marketing specialists.

Williams built Mayson-Dixon out of frustration with business-as-usual in Baltimore’s real estate circles, which he found excluded people of color and quick to dictate to communities what they needed instead of the other way around. Now, with a growing team, his own downtown office building and the funds to invest in projects as an equity partner, Williams wants to lay the foundation for more Black wealth, equity and ownership in his hometown, in homage to his roots.

“There’s a level of trust that I’ve built that I need to leverage,” Williams said. “It’s what my great-grandfather used to say: ‘When someone opens the door for you, don’t close it behind you. Create opportunity for everyone.’”

James B. Carpenter rang the opening bell at Lexington Market in the 1960s and early 1970s. A celebrated local figure, he also ran a three-chair shoeshine and repair service in the market.
James B. Carpenter rang the opening bell at Lexington Market in the 1960s and early 1970s. A celebrated local figure, he also ran a three-chair shoeshine and repair service in the market. (Clarence Garrett/Baltimore Sun)

Born in Southwest Baltimore and raised in Edmondson Village, Williams, 40, comes from a family of small business owners and entrepreneurs. His father, John Thomas Williams Sr., a taxi driver who owned his own cab and medallion, taught him the importance of striking up conversation and staying engaged. People are more similar than they are different, his father told him, and they tend to invest in people they believe in, not causes.

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“I think, in his mind, he was always preparing me to bring people together,” Williams said about his dad, who died in 2006.

He learned how to love and appreciate his city through those days in the cab with his father, talking to everyone who got in. When he left for college, the elder Williams urged him to come back and be a part of the city’s next generation of leaders.

Those close to Williams said they’re grateful he heeded his father’s advice.

“He’s probably, at the end of this, going to have 10 to 100 companies,” said Shelonda Stokes, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, who has enlisted Williams as one of the organization’s ambassadors to recruit and maintain more businesses in the city’s core.

“You have some organizations that really have to fight to keep employees. And then you have some, like Jayson, who really believe in their heart in the health and wellness of having everybody included in a project.”

Stokes described Williams as the glue that binds several high-profile Baltimore development projects together, including what’s now called The Compass, the soon-to-be redeveloped five-and-dime shopping district near Lexington Market. It centers on Howard Street between Fayette and Lexington streets and stretches a block east to Park Avenue.

The project has languished for years. But Williams, one of its developers, said he’s just the person to get it done.

“I have now met with almost all of the developers and business owners that surround The Compass, but not just The Compass, the entire neighborhood,” Williams said. “And it’s invigorating people to think a bit differently about how they can support the project.”

A mixed-use endeavor that would feature retail, housing, a grocery store and an entertainment venue, The Compass’ success hinges largely on Williams’ ability to work with the city’s preservationists, who have designated the former shopping district as a historic landmark, shielding it from major construction or renewal projects.

Williams said there are plans in place to maintain the district’s architectural character while modernizing it for 21st-century consumers. He hopes to draw inspiration and guidance from artists, restaurateurs and small business owners. If executed properly, he said it could serve as a bridge from Lexington Market to the rest of downtown, and reflect the interests of a diverse array of tenants and occupants.

The project is in its design phase, Williams said, and will need approval from the city’s Commission of Historic and Architectural Preservation to move forward. If everything moves along, he said, construction could begin at the end of next year.

“You can feel it from [the Commission of Historic and Architectural Preservation] that they’ve been working on this for a long time, as well. And they want to figure out how to get to ‘yes,’” Williams said. “If there’s anything that’s always been my mantra, it’s: ‘If anyone is ever saying no, how do we get to yes?’”

Jayson Williams, CEO of Mayson-Dixon Cos., a vertically integrated development company, stands Nov. 13, 2021, near The Compass, the Superblock project his company is undertaking near Lexington Market.
Jayson Williams, CEO of Mayson-Dixon Cos., a vertically integrated development company, stands Nov. 13, 2021, near The Compass, the Superblock project his company is undertaking near Lexington Market. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Achieving community as well as public and private-sector support is crucial to the success of The Compass and other projects, and Williams’ ability as a natural storyteller who communicates Baltimore’s strengths to others and breaks down silos, makes him an ideal partner for projects requiring outside investment, said Colin Tarbert, CEO and president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s quasi-public economic development arm.

“Jayson has already proven successful, but he’s also just getting started,” said Tarbert, whose organization is helping shepherd The Compass into existence. “And he’s doing it in a community-oriented manner, which shows what one can create from a social standpoint.”

Williams’ company also is handling construction work and supplying building materials for the Towns at Eager Park development, the East Baltimore Development Inc. overhaul of some 88 acres of land around the Johns Hopkins medical campus. That project, a decadeslong effort to attract more Hopkins-affiliated personnel and students to the area, will create dozens of housing units at market rate and “affordable” prices.

Williams started small with the EBDI project, just doing paint and drywall work. But through a strategic partnership with the Ryan Homes construction company, Mayson-Dixon’s Modern Builders is taking on more of the interior work, Williams said, allowing the company to grow 10 times in size since the start of its work there.

“That’s transformative for a contractor,” Williams said. “It was [Ryan Homes’] way of leaning in and helping the contractor grow.”

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The EBDI opportunity sparked so much growth that it convinced Williams and his team that the construction side of the business could stand on its own. What started as a $500,000 business venture will end this year with $5 million in revenue and more than $10 million in signed contract work heading into the new year, Williams said.

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Paying it forward, Williams has formed partnerships with smaller firms, including Charm City Buyers, a husband-and-wife development team of Khalil and Kyara Uqdah, to help them achieve similar growth.

The Uqdahs, who were revitalizing dilapidated homes in the Broadway East community with other small or first-time developers, inspired Williams to use what influence and connections he had to contribute to their work.

Kyara Uqdah called Williams an ideal partner who aligns with the for-profit development model that improves neighborhoods without displacing legacy residents. She said Williams helps smaller firms like hers compete.

“Many hands make light work,” she said. “Together, we can make a difference, and change the narrative on what development looks like in the city.”

Williams said there are strategic benefits to doing business this way. He can use funds from the supply, construction and consulting arms to invest in development projects. It also enables him to dip his feet into several different ventures at once in various capacities, spreading his company’s reach throughout the region.

Williams' Modern Builders company is the general contractor for the Zero Energy North Avenue Affordable Housing project, a mixed-use development in the Penn North neighborhood.
Williams' Modern Builders company is the general contractor for the Zero Energy North Avenue Affordable Housing project, a mixed-use development in the Penn North neighborhood. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

This approach helped him weather the pandemic after it swept into Maryland and decimated his consulting business. His other services flourished, he said, especially on the supply side, which was bolstered by an prediction from a friend with connections in Wuhan, China, who told him to stock up on personal protective equipment ahead of the 2020 rush.

“I can sit at the table as a partner, and I have my own resources to do so, versus always counting on someone else to come through,” Williams said.

Williams said he learned to rely on himself the hard way.

His companies, Modern Builders and Modern Suppliers, stemmed from his realization that often subcontractors owned by people of color and women bought their materials at higher retail prices rather than wholesale because they didn’t have the lines of credit necessary to purchase from national players. He also understood the financial hardships that some contractors and subcontractors felt when they didn’t get paid for their services right away, so he committed to paying them faster.

Soon enough, it all came together under the Mayson-Dixon Properties and Development umbrella, which he runs with his mom; his life and business partner, Matt Newcomer, and Newcomer’s father — whose own families started the original Modern Builders company in Carroll County in 1958.

They want to help others avoid the same growing pains they went through.

Jayson Williams, CEO of Mayson-Dixon Cos., a vertically integrated development company, picks up trash Nov. 13, 2021, during a community cleanup in the area around The Compass, the Superblock project his company is undertaking near Lexington Market.
Jayson Williams, CEO of Mayson-Dixon Cos., a vertically integrated development company, picks up trash Nov. 13, 2021, during a community cleanup in the area around The Compass, the Superblock project his company is undertaking near Lexington Market. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

“I actually feel bad about the fact that I had to do it, but I would send my business partner, my white business partner, a former banker, into those meetings, because I wasn’t sure that I would get the loan as quickly as he would get the loan,” Williams said.

“Mayson-Dixon” not only includes a combination of Williams’ and Newcomer’s first names, but also signifies the company’s commitment to bringing people together, Williams said, and pioneering a new world.

It’s a different world than the one his great-grandfather likely imagined, but one he’s enjoying taking in from the 14th floor of the Charles Street office building he now owns.

“I’ve earned my seat at the table. And we’re going to perform. And we’re going to be ourselves, and we’re going to be honest,” Williams said. “And I think that will also help change some hearts and minds in an industry that’s been dominated by white men.”

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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