New Baltimore Development Corp. president William H. Cole IV wants to increase incentives for small and midsize businesses by $4 million annually, boost small city loans for start-up firms by $500,000, and attract 13 international companies to the city.
Those are among the goals laid out in a 54-page economic development strategy plan released Tuesday. The city paid two contractors $160,000 to help develop the plan, which incorporated ideas from interviews with more than 200 local leaders in the business, nonprofit and government sectors, and five community meetings, the city said.
"Keeping businesses here in Baltimore and helping them grow will continue to be our top priority," Cole said. "The mayor has come up with a micro-loan program that's working. It's reasonable and high impact without being grossly expensive."
The city has given out $300,000 in small-business loans of up to $30,000 to 14 companies since 2012, including $20,000 for Mindgrub Technologies, which added 20 employees, and $20,000 for The Charmery ice cream shop, which added 10 new jobs. The BDC's new plan calls for $500,000 more in small-business loans to be awarded each year.
"Small business is the backbone of the economy," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. "We're going to continue to look for ways to support it."
Much of the plan is a continuation of current city policy, including goals of increasing the number of grocery stores, expanding the city's convention center, building a better fiber network and bolstering Baltimore's port through an intermodal facility. The increased incentives for small and medium-size businesses are among the few recommendations with a specific dollar figure attached. Cole said he had not yet identified from where the increased funding for small-business incentives would come.
"It's a goal. We believe there needs to be focused investment in these areas," Cole said. "It requires, obviously, more money."
AngelouEconomics of Austin, Texas, was paid $140,000 to work on the report, while Baltimore-based Hatcher Group was paid $20,000. The city is required to do the report in order to qualify for some federal funding.
In 2011, AngelouEconomics was criticized for a report it did in Lexington, Ky., that recycled material from other cities, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. The firm apologized and refunded $75,000 to the city of Lexington.
Angelos Angelou, the firm's founder, said there is no recycled material in Baltimore's report.
"Every client receives a specialized report," he said. "Baltimore is a unique city with phenomenal potential. We need to be sure we create an entrepreneurial culture. The city also needs to invest in its infrastructure and should increase incentives to attract more manufacturing."
Rawlings-Blake said she was pleased with the firm's work, particularly recommendations to invest more in small businesses.
"My goal for moving forward is that all of Baltimore's communities feel the prosperity," she said. "The worst thing that could happen as we grow out of the recession is to forget those who have been left behind. That's why we're focused on neighborhood development and main street and small businesses."
Anirban Basu, an economist who runs the Baltimore-based consulting firm Sage Policy Group and was recently selected to advise Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, said the report "expresses a vision with which almost everyone would agree." But, he said, he was concerned with a lack of specific recommendations.
"Do I see a lot of actionable items in this report? I do not," he said.
Even so, he said the report's endorsement of continued incentives for businesses called TIFs and PILOTs as well as a focus on increasing manufacturing jobs were heartening.
"Every so often, there are stakeholders who express a desire to see those tools disappear," he said of city subsidies. "This suggests they are important and ongoing tools in the economic development process. That's a very important message."
Rawlings-Blake in August chose Cole, then a city councilman, as the new president of the BDC, the city's quasi-public development agency. He is just the fourth person in the agency's 23-year history to hold that title.
Cole's predecessor, Brenda McKenzie, led the agency for less than two years. During her tenure, some in the business community have said, they were concerned about a lack of urgency on some development issues, including that she hadn't created a new plan for the agency or sought new proposals to develop the so-called Superblock on downtown's west side.
Carl Bradley, the BDC's director of strategy and analytics, said the report needed to be finished by year's end to satisfy U.S. Economic Development Administration requirements. He, too, emphasized the BDC's top mission is to help companies already in Baltimore.
"Most of our growth is going to come from those companies," Bradley said. "We're really trying to drive that home."