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State promoter beset by money woes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the background of many efforts to sell the state to visiting business people has been the Maryland Communications Center Inc., an unheralded and virtually unknown nonprofit organization housed on the 22nd floor of the Inner Harbor's Legg Mason Tower.

While officials touted Maryland's virtues, the center's small staff maintained the showcase meeting place with its panoramic view of downtown and produced slide shows and videos that were shown on the center's 18-foot-long screen.

But now, as Gov. Parris N. Glendening is moving to make economic development the centerpiece of his administration, the 14-year-old organization is threatened by the sudden withdrawal of funding by the Maryland Chamber of Commerce -- one of its two main financial supporters.

"We didn't know it was coming," said Pamela R. Jones, executive director of the center. "Obviously, we are in a challenging position."

The center's crisis started in February when the Maryland Chamber of Commerce decided to immediately stop its funding of the center. In past years, the chamber had contributed as much as $190,000 annually -- 40 percent or more of the center's budget, which has ranged from about $300,000 to $475,000. But for this fiscal year, which ends June 31, the chamber has given only $78,000.

The state Department of Economic and Employment Development, the center's other major supporter, has added $17,000 to its usual $150,000 donation. But even with contributions from other donors, the center still has to raise $113,000 in the next few months to meet its bills for this fiscal year.

After that, it will have to replace the chamber's contribution.

"That's going to be a tough nut to crack," said Alan J. Noia, president and chief operating officer of Allegheny Power System and a member of the center's board.

"I'm hopeful that businesses in Baltimore and the surrounding area step up to the plate. They have the most to lose," he said.

The state will continue its support, but the center has to find new private partners to replace the chamber, according to Tim W. Ayers, the recently appointed state marketing director. "It would be very expensive to re-create the facility," he said.

The center will also have to emphasize its multimedia capabilities, according to James T. Brady, who will lead the state's economic development effort when he becomes DEED ZTC secretary next Monday. DEED will change its name to the Department of Business and Economic Development in July.

'A marvelous place'

"It is a marvelous place to bring people from out of town and provide them with a very contemporary, multimedia sense of what Maryland is all about," he said. "I do not believe we have used the center enough in that mode in the past. And we've tended to use it as a very charming place to hold meetings," Mr. Brady said. "And that's a very secondary purpose to me."

The cutoff of support from the chamber came after two sister organizations -- the Maryland Economic Growth Associates (MEGA) and the Maryland Business Council -- were folded into the chamber in December. Along with the consolidation came a new focus on trying to change public policy on business, rather than actually trying to attract business to the state, according to Champe C. McCulloch, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

In addition, with declining revenues of its own in the last five years -- and deficits in some years -- the chamber decided it could no longer support the program, Mr. McCulloch said.

As to the timing, he said the chamber considered whether to ease out or do it all once. "It was kinder to cut off the dog's tail in one stroke rather than three," Mr. McCulloch said.

But the chamber still thinks the center is a useful tool. "I think it can play a valuable and important role," Mr. McCulloch said.

The center got its start in 1981 as the Baltimore Briefing Center on the 24th floor of 36 S. Charles St., next to the Baltimore Economic Development Corp. -- the city's business development agency.

At that time, the $150,000 budget was paid by BEDCO, DEED and the Greater Baltimore Committee, a private business group. Then in 1986, MEGA -- an outgrowth of the GBC -- became a major supporter as the GBC reduced its role.

State-of-the-art complex

In 1989, the center took the big leap to the Legg Mason building. With $750,000 in donations from businesses, the center moved into the 5,381-square-foot suite of offices, complete with a state-of-the-art audio-video complex where shows could be produced and shown.

At its height, the center had five employees assisting the state in projects ranging from persuading the NAACP to move its headquarters to Baltimore to the failed efforts to bring an NFL franchise to town.

But in 1993, the center had to lay off one person because of a $50,000 cut in funding by DEED.

This was followed by two more layoffs the following year -- leaving only Ms. Jones and Pamela J. Ruff, the center's assistant director, supplemented by free-lance help.

In the meantime, MEGA became affiliated with the chamber, which then picked up the support of the center.

With its pared-down staff, the center's major expense now is rent -- $203,248 this year -- and personnel -- $131,327.

The Greater Baltimore Committee, which has not contributed money to the center for several years, said it may donate $10,000 at the end of the year, if its budget allows, according to GBC President Donald P. Hutchinson.

But the GBC cannot step in the chamber's shoes. "We don't have the funds or the need for the utilization of the center to be that kind of partner," Mr. Hutchinson said.

The center, meanwhile, has lined up presentations with three large companies to seek their support, said Ms. Jones, who declined to identify the companies.

To make the center more attractive to possible donors, Ms. Jones wants to upgrade the technology at the center to feature teleconference facilities and touch-screen terminals that detail Maryland's economic advantages.

"Maryland is a technological state. We should be using technology to market Maryland," Ms. Jones said.

And despite the difficult effort of finding new donors, she is optimistic that she can find businesses that will be interested in promoting the state.

"I'm very optimistic," Ms. Jones said. "There's a whole new group of men and women."

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