That history — and his close ties to the business community — make him a great choice to jump-start the Baltimore Development Corp., his many supporters say.
"He understands the balance that's needed between business interests and community interests," says Aris Melissaratos, interim dean of the business school at Stevenson University. He called Cole's appointment "a master stroke."
But critics see Cole's record as a reason to be concerned. Rachel Kutler, an advocate for low-wage workers, faults his support for subsidies for upscale projects, such as the Harbor Point development soon to rise next to Harbor East.
"Councilman Cole's voting record shows he supported policies that increased the sense of polarity in Baltimore," said Kutler, an organizer for United Workers.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake chose Cole last week as the new president of the BDC, the city's quasi-public development agency. Cole will be just the third person in the agency's 18-year history to hold that title since it was reorganized in the mid-1990s into its current form, with a largely private-sector board of directors. And he has a very different background from the previous two.
M.J. "Jay" Brodie was a former Baltimore housing commissioner and had run an economic development corporation in Washington for a decade before he went to the BDC. Brenda McKenzie, who announced her resignation last week, came to Baltimore after leading economic development efforts in Boston. She has a master's in urban planning.
By contrast, Cole, 41, is a University of Baltimore vice president and member of the City Council, where he has been a reliable supporter of the mayor. He's also chairman of the board of Cecil Bank. That experience, he says, makes him well qualified for the $190,000-a-year job.
"If you ask anyone about a development project in my district, they will tell you I played a very active role," Cole says. "There's no definitive course you take for doing this job. If I had an urban planning background, someone might say, 'Why don't you have a marketing degree?' It's somewhat irrelevant when you have real-world experience.
"That said, I must make sure there are very talented people at the BDC to do things I might not have all the answers for."
During his time on the council, Cole has been a key supporter of downtown economic development projects, such as the Baltimore Grand Prix IndyCar race and a proposed tower on Pratt Street.
But he says his vision for the agency is to focus on much more than just downtown — and that he plans to make neighborhood and small-business development a hallmark of his tenure.
"It's not an either-or situation," Cole said. "A healthy commercial district downtown helps neighborhoods. Healthy neighborhoods help support commercial districts."
But Cole also rejects the notion that the BDC has been primarily focused on downtown's waterfront. While many of the agency's taxpayer-funded subsidies have been on the water — including the Harborview and Harbor Point projects — Cole notes that often they have not been.
Mondawmin Mall, Clipper Mill and Belvedere Square, for instance, have all received taxpayer assistance through the agency. Recently, a new grocery store opened up in Howard Park with assistance from the BDC.
"I don't think it's a fair criticism of BDC. They've done a lot of stuff over the years in the neighborhoods," Cole said. "They've got men and women right now working in neighborhoods."
McKenzie led the agency for less than two years. She said last week she was resigning for personal and family reasons and will leave later this month. During ther 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.
"She offered her resignation, and we mutually agreed that it was best that she step down to deal with her family matter," said Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake.
Melissaratos, a former secretary of Maryland's Department of Business and Economic Development, said he enthusiastically supports the mayor's choice of Cole, calling him "very substantive" and "one of our better public servants."
Melissaratos said he was not concerned that Cole doesn't have a business degree.
"You have to combine the theoretical with the practical, and the practical trumps the theoretical in most places," Melissaratos said. "Bill is well equipped in knowing the city."
Some questioned the tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions Cole has received from developers. John Duda, a worker-owner at Red Emma's bookstore and organizer of a group called Another BDC Is Possible, said he was concerned Cole could decide deals based on "who knows who" rather than from a community-development perspective.
"You would want somebody who understands the challenges of people in the community," he said.
Cole has received thousands of dollars in campaign donations from people connected to real estate, from developers to architects.
Cole, who will have the task of analyzing requests from developers for subsidies, said he will have no problem saying no to supporters if the deal isn't wise for taxpayers.
"Just because somebody donated to me doesn't mean they get their way on things," he said. "There is no correlation between a campaign contribution and an action."
Developer Mark Sapperstein gave $1,000 to Cole through an affiliate this year. Sapperstein said his donations are not related to his real estate interests in the city, which include the Shops at Canton Crossing and McHenry Row in Locust Point, which used city bonds to finance the parking garage.
Sapperstein said he does not believe he is more likely to get through to politicians because of his donations.
"By donating 5,000 or 6,000 bucks, can I get somebody to get me a $20 million loan or something like that? I don't think they're going to take on that risk for five or six thousand," he said. "I think I got the audience … because my ideas and my projects are probably bigger than most."
Caves Valley Partners, which is planning a $250 million project in Sharp-Leadenhall, gave at least $2,000 to Cole over two years through affiliates and personal donations, including $1,000 from partner Arsh Mirmiran.
Mirmiran said seeing contributions as a way to further projects is "cynical."
"That's not the way we look at it at all. We look at it as people who are making a sacrifice in choosing a career in politics and public service, and we support a wide variety of public figures who we think are good for Baltimore City, Baltimore County and the state," he said. "We've supported people in places that we don't even have projects."
Mirmiran said he had been impressed by McKenzie but called the choice of Cole a "stroke of genius" — and surprising. "Not in my wildest imagination did I have any notion that he would end up at BDC," he said.
Cole said Monday he plans to remain on the City Council through the end of the month to give Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young time to appoint a committee to nominate a replacement.
Rawlings-Blake said she's received "a lot of positive feedback" about Cole's appointment.
"Councilman Cole knows Baltimore neighborhoods, knows development," she said.
"He has been a legislator in the district where most the development has happened," she said. "He has a healthy amount of experience in how to move projects forward. He understands the balance and the interplay between government and business. He has shown himself to be smart and a critical thinker."
Charles Schilke, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School, said Cole will lead Baltimore's economic development at a time of "vast redevelopment potential." Cole's task will be to focus on transportation and leveraging private development using public investment as the city prepares for larger ships from the expanded Panama Canal. Cole should focus on making sure the city is prepared with rail capability, for example, Schilke said.
"The city's core transportation clearly continues to need work," he said. Focusing on transportation can build on McKenzie's work on redevelopment in places like Harbor East and emphasize Cole's expertise in revitalizing neighborhoods.
On Monday, Cole's City Council colleagues wished him well at what was likely his last council meeting.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said Cole's work on the council was good preparation for his next role. She called him a "devoted, diligent" council member.
"He knows what matters, and he knows from his own district — yes, downtown, around the harbor, in the business centers — we must thrive, but we are thriving because of the people in the outlying districts, in the neighborhoods, on the main streets of Baltimore," Clarke said.
"He will have one foot in each world, and he'll know what to do when he gets there. And if he forgets, we'll say, 'Bill, if you could step right over here to Greenmount Avenue, I'd like to have a few words.' "
Baltimore Sun reporters Natalie Sherman and Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.