Towson development group picks neighborhood leader as its director


For years, Wayne Skinner has spent much of his time and energy with neighborhood groups working to safeguard their communities from threats -- including the excesses of commercial developers.

Now the Towson Development Corp., a key advocate for business and development in the Baltimore County seat, has hired him to help map out its goals in a recession-weakened economy.

He replaces Leslie Graef, who retired in June as the TDC's executive director.

The choice has surprised many in Towson, even Mr. Skinner.

"I'm not a developer, and I'm not a business person," he said. In fact, he is president of the Towson-Loch Raven Community Council Inc., an umbrella group for 11 neighborhood associations, and a past-president of the Loch Raven Village Neighborhood Association.

But, he said, when developers and neighborhoods start fighting with each other, "you don't go anywhere."

"I'd like to see a better working relationship between both parties. Each side has to understand where each is coming from."

"I'm not afraid to tell them [the TDC] things they don't want to hear," he said.

Towson-area residents clashed most recently with developers over the scale of the Towson Commons development.

As key promoters of the giant office and retail project, the TDC and Mr. Graef became the lightning rods for neighborhood groups who objected to it.

Councilman Douglas B. Riley, who represents Towson, called Mr. Skinner's appointment "a surprise to me and and, I think, to most people who have watched the TDC over the years."

"I take it as an indication that the TDC intends to restructure itself as a group concerned with all of Towson," said the 4th District Democrat.

Perhaps unfairly, Mr. Riley said, "Mr. Graef had become so closely linked to the development community that he was held suspect by the neighborhoods."

Mr. Skinner may likewise have been considered suspect by the development community, he added, but "evidently, they [TDC members] see that he can promote their agenda to revitalize Towson as a business center, but can do so while balancing the interests of the neighborhoods."

Richard Zeff, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, said his organization has not yet discussed the appointment.

Speaking for himself, however, he remains cautious.

While Mr. Skinner and his past community involvement are familiar to him, "I don't know him in the context of his work in these kinds of [development] issues, especially when he is working with an organization that works for the development community," Mr. Zeff said.

Nevertheless, he said, "We're always open to working with new leadership" at the TDC.

TDC President Ray Burke said his organization has always been receptive to the concerns of neighborhood groups.

"It [Towson Commons] wasn't everything that everyone wanted, but it

was a very good project with a capable developer who attempted to be sensitive," he said.

"But, because we promoted it so strongly to bring life back to York Road, there was just a feeling in the community that our organization was purely development oriented."

"Take that project away, and . . . all in all, communities do support the things TDC has been working for," he said.

Mr. Burke said the TDC tapped Mr. Skinner because of his energy and experience with a variety of civic projects in Towson.

"He had knowledge of the players," he said. "We didn't seek him out because of his association with the community [organizations]. That was a plus."

Mr. Skinner, 38, is also a member of the county Office of Planning and Zoning's Community Conservation Advisory Group and the Board of Recreation and Parks.

He is a past president of Historic Towson Inc., and helped organize and run a variety of community events, including Art Fest, Towson Gardens Day and the Towsontown Festival.

Mr. Skinner said he will continue in his full-time job with the state Department of Assessments and Taxation's homeowners and renters tax credit program.

He said he will devote only 10 hours a week to the TDC job -- mostly at night -- and will have staff help only two days a week.

The recession has hit Towson business interests hard, and they have less money to contribute to the TDC. Baltimore County's annual contributions -- once as high as $60,000 -- also have ended.

As a result, the TDC's budget had shrunk from $85,000 in its heyday during the 1980s to just $20,000 this year.

"My job is to come in and look at what they've done, and what they want done" under these new economic realities, Mr. Skinner said.

"I think there's a willingness to change course. Nothing's sacred. I'm looking at everything."

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