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Burch takes helm at GBC


Francis B. Burch Jr., the new chairman of the Greater Baltimore Committee, unveiled yesterday a long-term strategy for the influential business organization and said the region's business community is encouraged by the city's reduction in violent crime over the past two years.

"I think people would agree that we're [now] at a point where that hope exists, where there is some confidence" that crime can be reduced significantly, Burch said at a news briefing yesterday.

Burch, who is co-chairman of Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe LLP, was sworn in as chairman at the GBC's annual meeting last night in front of 900 business, civic and political leaders at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel. He replaces John Morton III, who is president of Bank of America's mid-Atlantic division.

The 46-year-old nonprofit association, composed of 550 member businesses, has been a key player in helping shape public policy with regard to economic development in the city and the region.

While fighting crime has been a major cornerstone of the GBC's strategy, Burch spoke yesterday of a three-part agenda that targets east-side and west-side development and a unified planning effort for the Inner Harbor and the city's waterfront.

To sustain that agenda, Burch said, the GBC has recruited Christian H. Poindexter, chairman, president and CEO of Constellation Energy Group, as its next chairman in 2003. Poindexter has expressed his commitment to the agenda, Burch said.

The eroding city tax base is another major GBC concern, Burch said. He wouldn't comment directly on Mayor Martin O'Malley's budget plan, but did say that the incremental increases in tax revenue won't be enough to address "the very serious problems that we face in this city and this region."

The budget plan was approved Wednesday by the Board of Estimates and now goes to the City Council for consideration.

"Even small increases in taxes send a message that I really don't believe the political leadership fully comprehends," Burch said yesterday during the briefing.

"It's a powerful message that impedes efforts to attract investments and economic activity, and the extent to which it impedes that is way out of proportion to the actual additional tax burden imposed on the people who live and work in the city."

The challenge, Burch said, is to get business and political leadership aligned around the idea of making strategic investments that present substantial return potential over the long term.

Those investments include updating and expanding the region's transportation infrastructure -- with possible federal government help -- and the east-side and west-side development initiatives.

On the west side, Burch pointed to the completion of the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center renovation project and taking advantage of the University of Maryland's presence to expand commercial and residential development.

On the east side, the GBC is looking at a large area north of Johns Hopkins Hospital that can be developed into mixed commercial and residential properties.

With Hopkins and other medical institutions nearby, GBC officials envision a biomedical and technology center that will spin off scores of economic opportunities.

Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the GBC, said that overcoming people's perceptions of city life will be a battle fought by the mayor and other organizations, such as the Greater Baltimore Alliance, if the downward crime trend continues.

"I think that marketing the city is something that the mayor is ultimately going to have to focus on when he feels comfortable" with a longer term reduction in crime, Hutchinson said.

At last night's meeting, the GBC also presented its annual regional visionary award to William K. Hellmann for his work on the region's transportation issues.

Hellman, a former state transportation secretary who has served as chair of several transportation task forces, is a partner in the Baltimore engineering firm of Rummel, Klepper & Kahl.

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