Starting in January, owners of companies in Baltimore's business and industrial parks will be able to meet regularly with the mayor to discuss any concerns they may have about their operations.
In addition, the agency in charge of promoting economic development in the city, Baltimore Development Corp., will be surveying leaders of the service sector to find out how the city can help out with loans, training, real estate, transportation and public safety.
Economic development officials also are reorienting their loan programs with the goal of putting more emphasis on retaining businesses and helping fund start-up businesses.
It's all part of an stepped-up effort by the Schmoke administration, and the newly appointed president of the BDC, Honora Freeman, to take a more aggressive stance toward keeping businesses healthy and in Baltimore during tough economic times.
In her first major public address since she became president of the development corporation in October, Ms. Freeman promised yesterday to work closely with local business leaders to make the city "a center of high technology, high growth and high expectations."
She pledged to make the quasi-public organization, which was formed from the merger of the Baltimore Economic Development Corp. and Center City-Inner Harbor Development Inc., a "reliable, consistent and hard-working agency" that would be committed to helping businesses grow.
And she denied Baltimore is reeling from the recession and government budget cuts. "There is a strong temptation to think that at the close of 1991 we have what is perhaps a dark before the dawn, but that's absolutely wrong," she said.
"Even today, downtown Baltimore is not in the dark. Development, both residential and commercial, is continuing, and my point is that BDC is not here to ignite a revolution. It's going to keep on burning -- brighter, stronger and more enduring than before."
Addressing more than 200 members and guests of the Downtown Partnership during a breakfast meeting at the National Aquarium yesterday, Ms. Freeman said her five major goals for BDC during the second term of the Schmoke administration were to:
* Step up efforts to retain businesses throughout Baltimore and to help them grow. "Questions and problems from current businesses and prospective businesses are going to get a quick but thorough response," she said. "I have already made it clear to my staff that BDC is a service organization. We exist to service businesses. Business is not here to help us."
* Implement the mayor's recently completed 20-year strategy for guiding downtown development, including possibly making Charles Street a two-way traffic corridor, revamping the historic building designation process and identifying new neighborhoods,such as the proposed University Center district on the west side of downtown.
* Strengthen the economic connection between Baltimore and Washington by pushing for a magnetic levitation train line to link the two cities and by helping market downtown housing, the Camden Yards stadium and the MARC trains to Washingtonians.
* Expand the role that the life sciences play in the local economy, by building on existing assets and nurturing new projects such as the proposed $600 million medical mart and the $164 million Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration.
* Spur more participation in business by minorities and women.
During a question-and-answer session after her remarks, Ms. Freeman heard an earful of complaints from local business owners. Comments ranged from expressions of concern about downtown crime to pleas to see that more consulting work goes to local firms rather than out-of-towners.
Kemp Byrnes, head of the real estate company of Byrnes and Associates and past president of the Charles Street Association, said he believes the city must do more to promote the development activity that is under way in Baltimore, despite the recession.
"We need to do more to get the word out about how dynamic Baltimore still is," he said.
Developer David Tufaro of Summit Properties voiced concern about the recent change of architects for the Columbus Center. He said that the project represented one of the few opportunities Baltimore has to gain a "world-class design" and that he fears it has been lost with the replacement of Richard Rogers, a British architect
"Members of the architectural community are very disappointed because they think it will be a major loss for the city of Baltimore," he said.
"This building is going to outlast all of us. It needs to be not just a good building, but a great building."
Ms. Freeman offered to meet separately with anyone to discuss his or her concerns at length. She said repeatedly that she wants to work closely with business owners and managers to achieve their mutual goals.
"As bad as the economy is right now," she said, "it's going to get better. The greatest days for Baltimore are still to come."