Donald P. Hutchinson jokes that his commute won't change " much next Monday when he becomes president of the Greater && Baltimore Committee. But the style of the business and civic advocacy group is going to change a lot. And its substance is going to change at least a little.
The 47-year-old former Baltimore County executive's new office in the Legg Mason tower at Pratt and Calvert streets will be only 15 floors below his old digs at the Maryland Business Council, the parent of the state Chamber of Commerce, where he has worked since he left politics in 1987.
But as he moves down from near the top of the tower across Pratt Street from Harborplace, so he will take a more front-and-center position than his predecessor as he refocuses the GBC on practical, here-and-now issues driving the economic present.
"We were looking for someone with a high profile; it would serve the GBC well at this time in its history," said Decatur H. Miller, GBC's chairman and also chairman of the law firm of Piper & Marbury.
Mr. Hutchinson's predecessor, Robert Keller, was the polar opposite of Mr. Hutchinson, a career politician who was first elected to public office nine days after graduating from Frostburg State College in 1967. Mr. Keller, an ex-journalist who left the GBC after 12 years to run a similar, larger group in Detroit, preferred to keep a lower public profile.
"I'll be asked to give more speeches, make more presentations," Hutchinson said. "I'll spend a lot of time playing that role. Bob didn't do it. The GBC didn't want to be visible. They wanted to have an impact."
Mr. Hutchinson is both the first ex-politician and first suburbanite (he lives in Loveton in northern Baltimore County) to run the GBC since the high-powered business organization was founded in 1955. But with the city's problems -- and the region's -- demanding solutions that require delicate give-and-take in both the General Assembly and the business world, a politician was something the GBC wanted, Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Hutchinson has been saying in speeches that groups with a regional outlook such as the GBC need a keener appreciation of the pressures politicians face in implementing ideas, an appreciation that cooly rational concepts that sound good in seminar halls downtown are much harder to sell in neighborhood association meetings in Bel Air or Essex.
That sensitivity is at the heart of Mr. Hutchinson's occasional differences with committed regionalists. For example, he defends Baltimore County's campaign to retain the headquarters the U.S. Health Care Financing Administration in Woodlawn. Baltimore County, he said, had to be expected to fight to keep the 2,800 HCFA jobs.
And he opposed the GBC-backed tax package proposed in 1990 by the Linowes Commission, which in effect would have not only raised taxes but funneled more from richer jurisdictions, particularly Montgomery County, to poorer ones.
"People forget what Linowes was asking for: a billion dollars in spending for new initiatives," he said. "All Montgomery County wants is a recognition that they have some special needs too. It's a myth to say Montgomery County is so wealthy it can take care of its own problems."
Ultimately, Mr. Hutchinson's style will be to understand that politics is the art of the possible.
"Politicians have a bit of a comfort zone in talking with someone they know at least understands where they're coming from and what they can do," he said. "When they say no, they'll feel I understand why, because they know from the outset I won't ask for something so extraordinary they can't say yes."
Mr. Hutchinson's here-and-now approach is going to affect the group's agenda as well as its political style. Taking a back seat will be the GBC's emphasis on the life sciences as the linchpin of the regional economy of the future.
"I don't know that there's any de-emphasis of life sciences; that's an overstatement," he said. "The life sciences can only be a part of GBC's agenda. They cannot be the GBC's agenda for a couple of reasons."
The main reason he gives is simple: "The short-term job creation is insignificant. . . . You could take five years or eight years of life sciences job gains and wipe it out with one layoff at Westinghouse."
Mr. Miller said the shift toward less emphasis on life sciences, which includes existing health care businesses but has conjured up visions of explosive growth of biotechnology companies, had begun even before Mr. Hutchinson was tapped.
The committee wanted "to correct the perception that the GBC was hooked on life sciences, which was never the case," he said. "If the GBC is seen as totally focused on life sciences, it will lose credibility."
Mr. Hutchinson also got a vote of confidence from H. Russell Frisby Jr., chairman of the Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce, which was formed early this year amid criticism that the GBC was too far removed from the everyday concerns of city businesses.
"We're very excited to see Don take over the organization," he said. "We are happy with the way things are going at the GBC. . . . Our roles are going to be complementary."
So what will Mr. Hutchinson talk about instead? He says the GBC will advocate the interests of already-strong businesses that need help to stay strong, such as tourism. He also plans to promote information technology -- the GBC is sponsoring a
"Technology Month" this month -- and will lobby for policies that improve the climate for all businesses, re-emphasizing traditional GBC concerns such as education.
The GBC won't make education policy directly, said Mr. Hutchinson, but can use its own skills to support new educational goals. For example, the GBC, along with other business groups, will support moves toward more school-based management by setting up management training programs for principals with little formal training in management.
"They're educators, they're not business managers," Mr. Hutchinson said.
As the GBC moves toward a more general role of advocating for business, away from its image as an economic-development think tank, it may have more in common with the organization Mr. Hutchinson left. The Maryland Business Council was the parent of the state Chamber of Commerce and Maryland Economic Growth Associates, which, like the GBC, sees itself as a problem-solver for the business community.
Mr. Hutchinson said there's no talk of merging the GBC into the statewide groups.
And he parries speculation that he will jump into the next year's Democratic primary for governor.
"How do you close the door?" he said. "I can only say I don't have any intention [to run]. I took this job with every intent of staying for the long term. It was on those terms that it was offered."