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Development office review sought by mayor


Acknowledging a continuing debate over the effectiveness of Baltimore's economic development agency, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke yesterday said a panel of business people will make a "top to bottom" review and recommend changes within 60 days.

Mr. Schmoke also announced the creation of a committee of top city officials to review financial controls in city agencies, as well as allegations of fraud and waste. That follows a year of controversy over a $25 million no-bid repair program run by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

Both moves mark an attempt by the mayor to address issues that were targeted in City Council hearings this month.

The review of the Baltimore Development Corp. is "overdue," said Michael A. Conte, director of regional economic studies at the University of Baltimore. "I think there's been a growing chorus of frustration about what's happening in the city."

In December, The Sun published a lengthy article quoting corporate executives who said the BDC lacked leadership and did not understand the needs of business.

Criticism of the city's record in attracting and retaining businesses was renewed after USF&G; Corp.'s decision in January to vacate its downtown headquarters and consolidate operations in Mount Washington.

Yesterday, as expected, Robert L. Hannon, second in command at BDC, was named to head Baltimore County's economic development efforts.

Also during the past year, the housing authority's no-bid repair program has been under fire. A continuing federal corruption probe has resulted in several bribery convictions, and a Sun series detailed instances in which inexperienced contractors were paid for shoddy work or work that was not done.

Mr. Schmoke said he would name the members of the BDC review panel today, adding that they would be "business people who have experience dealing with economic development entities."

The mayor, who strongly defended the agency after The Sun's December article, promised that "everything'll be on the table" regarding the agency. "Some people have talked about the leadership of the organization, others have praised the work of BDC but said they think it's trying to do too much with limited resources."

Business and civic leaders applauded creation of a panel to review the BDC, a $3 million-a-year quasi-public group the mayor created four years ago by merging two economic development agencies.

Walter Sondheim, a former BDC board member and a key figure in the city's downtown revival, declined to say whether the review should have come sooner. But he said it was a good idea.

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