In an often-blunt assessment of Baltimore's often-criticized efforts to create and retain jobs, a panel of business leaders said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke needs to do more to promote business publicly and to boost funding for the city's key economic development agency.
The panel, appointed by the mayor in April, called on Mr. Schmoke to be the business community's "principal cheerleader" and to select a top professional who has the confidence of the corporate community to head the Baltimore Development Corp.
BDC's previous president, Honora M. Freeman, a lawyer with little experience in economic development, was transferred last week to become Mr. Schmoke's deputy chief of staff after sharp criticism from business leaders that she did not understand the needs of local companies.
The agency's new leader should have "complete authority" to hire staff members and to decide whether to keep or fire current employees, some of whom are not qualified to do their jobs, the panel said.
The panel's recommendations are contained in a report to Mr. Schmoke, a draft copy of which was obtained by The Sun.
Anthony T. Hawkins, chairman of the nine-member panel and a vice president of the Rouse Co., said yesterday that he would not comment on the report until he had briefed the mayor on it.
"I haven't had a chance to discuss it with him at all," he said.
In an acknowledgment of the debate over BDC's effectiveness, Mr. Schmoke appointed the panel in April and charged it with completing a "top to bottom" review of the agency. BDC was criticized as inept and unresponsive in a lengthy article in The Sun in December and in a City Council hearing in March.
Efforts to reach Mr. Schmoke yesterday were unsuccessful.
Along with crime and education, economic development is one of the key issues in this year's mayoral campaign.
City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who is challenging Mr. Schmoke's bid for a third term, has been sharply critical of the mayor's record, pointing out that the city has lost more than 60,000 jobs since 1989. She has proposed a number of initiatives, including revamping BDC.
Mr. Schmoke has said that many of the job losses resulted from corporate restructurings and contractions that are beyond the control of city government. He also has pointed to a number of achievements of his administration, including the decision by Alex. Brown Inc. to keep its headquarters downtown and luring the laboratory of the well-known AIDS researcher Robert C. Gallo to West Baltimore.
Last week, Mr. Schmoke's campaign committee released a report on his record as mayor, the first of a series, touting his "creative economic vision." The 20-page booklet notes successes ranging from the development of downtown commercial properties such as Commerce Place to the city's being awarded one of six, $100 million federal empowerment zones nationwide.
Although the BDC review panel Mr. Schmoke appointed included several executives who are among the mayor's closest business advisers, its report did not spare him direct criticism.
Mr. Schmoke, the report said, must place greater emphasis on demonstrating that economic development is a top city priority.
"The mayor should more aggressively identify himself as the city's principal cheerleader . . . and should leave no doubt that economic development is an ongoing mayoral priority," the report said.
As a first step, it said, Mr. Schmoke should increase the funding for BDC, which has an annual budget of $3.1 million.
The report did not say how much BDC's funding should be increased, but it noted that "BDC is underfunded when compared to similar agencies in cities of comparable size with comparable economic challenges."
The report was even more critical of the agency itself, saying it lacks a "clear mission" and describing it as a "reactive organization relying on crisis management."
BDC also is not selective enough in choosing what projects to pursue, the report said.
"The staff is burdened with undertakings that are often not focused and that may not have good prospects for success," it said.
BDC should concentrate its efforts on job growth and retention, the report said, "as opposed to the more costly and problematic efforts associated with attracting large new businesses."
The agency should concentrate its efforts on downtown and industrial development, and on retaining jobs citywide, the report said. Some functions now handled at least in part by BDC, such as neighborhood business development, should be transferred to other agencies, it said.
In preparing the report, the panel interviewed more than 40 business executives, along with current and former city officials and a dozen BDC staffers. It also reviewed budgets and other documents.
FINDINGS OF BDC REPORT
Here are some of the key findings and recommendations in the report by the panel reviewing the Baltimore Development Corp.:
* Mayor Schmoke needs to show businesses that economic development is a top city priority.
* BDC's president must be an economic development professional with the confidence of the business community and of City Hall.
* BDC is underfunded.
* BDC takes on projects with little chance of success.
* Some on BDC's staff are unqualified.