Public is given first glimpse of GBA scorecard

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Greater Baltimore Alliance took a halting step yesterday toward building its credibility as the lead partner in economic development in the Baltimore region.

It released a new scorecard intended to assess its effectiveness and pinpoint the region's strengths and weaknesses.

To this point, the public has known relatively little about just how the nonprofit business organization works to attract companies to Baltimore, how successful it has been in that effort, or what regional strengths or weaknesses it has discovered in the process.

Not surprisingly, the GBA scored itself high on the first scorecard. Producing independent objective judgments may prove more difficult, experts say.

Sharing information is new for the GBA, because before now, the organization largely has kept the results of its performance surveys as internal documents.

"We've always had an internal report card, and that goes to our board," said Ioanna T. Morfessis, president and chief executive of the GBA.

"We're thrilled about this because it puts more information out to the general public, so they can understand what economic development is all about. We build communities by creating economic opportunities for the people who live here."

Soon, the GBA hopes to establish and share with the public a survey that gauges the perception of leading business location professionals and corporate executives toward the region as a place to locate a business

"Sometimes the glance of an outsider can provide unique insights into ourselves," said Christian S. Johansson, executive vice president of the GBA, which works to bring and retain business in the region.

"A window into perception is so incredibly important. Companies are making decisions based on these perceptions."

The first GBA report card lists a single economic development win with the decision of Amerock, an international division of Newell Rubbermaid, to locate a divisional headquarters in this region.

That division, which has its offices in Columbia, is expected to have 100 employees in 30,000 square feet of space by the end of next year.

A handful of other location successes will not be included on the GBA report until the parties sign leases, although they have indicated a decision to locate here, Morfessis said.

The report card also shows that GBA staff had 107 face-to-face meetings through June 30 of this year with executives of companies that might be considering a move to Baltimore - a number that brings it more than halfway toward meeting its goal of 150 such meetings for the year. The data also show that the GBA had 33 preliminary or solid leads by midyear - again more than halfway to its goal of 50.

The GBA has identified 16 prospects through June 30, slightly over half of its goal of 30 for the year. Those prospects have budgeted money for expenditures and placed Baltimore on a short list as a potential location site, Morfessis said.

"We may not reach all of our goals if the economy is not cooperating," Morfessis said. "We can execute and achieve all our marketing initiatives to get in front of people, but if there are no projects, there is nothing we can do about that."

But, in the end, success must be defined by bringing businesses to Baltimore, not talking to prospects, experts say.

"The proof is in the pudding in economic development," said John T. Podlesny, an economic development consultant from Iron River, Wis.

Making 107 contacts and being on the shortlist of 16 companies, is really meaningful only if something comes from it, he said.

"Realistically, you're going to do less than 5 percent," he said.

Rob DeRocker, executive vice president of Development Counsellors International in New York, an economic development marketing consultant, said the GBA had done well against its own measuring stick.

"They may be meeting their marketing goals, but the ultimate measure of success is what's it yielded?" he said.

Maureen L. McAvey, a senior fellow for urban development at the Urban Land Institute, said she considers the GBA marketing numbers good and its goals realistic.

"The 150 meetings - that's three a week," she said. "For each of these meetings, there's a lot of research. I think it's great that the numbers are as good as they are."

Since there are no standard measures for economic development, it's difficult to compare cities, said McAvey, who has headed urban development efforts in St. Louis and St. Paul, Minn. It's hard to know whether 16 prospects is the right number for Greater Baltimore, she said.

"But the economy is soft now," she said. "The fact that 16 companies are interested in moving into Baltimore sounds good."

McAvey wholeheartedly supports making such information public.

"As cities and states face budget crunches, a lot of times the public thinks these are boondoggles, and they aren't," she said. "It's useful for the public to know that these are investments that you make in your city's growth. And you tend to pay attention to what you measure. Having a scorecard and regularly announcing what you're doing builds some support for the activity.

The survey data that the GBA plans to make public also should prove useful, McAvey said.

The region can capitalize on the positive perceptions, she said.

"If businesses are not coming for a particular reason, those are things you can start to work on, because they're clearly hurting you," she said. "And the public needs to be involved, because they need to publicly support whatever the change is."

Morfessis would like to see more successful deals to bring jobs to Baltimore.

"We are producing suspects, leads and qualified prospects which we have a good chance of winning," she said. "Obviously, the key thing now is to close these deals. I'd like to see double the numbers. You're always striving for more and better numbers. It's been a tough almost three years."

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