Maryland Business Council launched as a needed advocate


Small to medium-size Maryland businesses got a new advocate yesterday with the launch of the Maryland Business Council, a statewide group that will push to make state and local agencies more responsive to their interests.

The Maryland Business Council is the brainchild of Edwin F. Hale Sr., chairman and chief executive of Baltimore-based 1st Mariner Bank, who also serves as the new council's chairman.

"We're going to be out there on the ground representing people doing business," Hale said yesterday. "We're not talking about theories and abstractions. We're talking about what it takes to do business every day in the state of Maryland."

Hale's idea is for Maryland businesses to have a support system in the form of business leaders who will selectively attend meetings of community groups, zoning and other boards that oversee land use, licensing and other areas.

The council also plans to operate a political action committee to encourage election of candidates who support business interests.

Hale said the group won't compete with existing business organizations, including the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. "I'm not in this to try to knock anyone out," Hale said. "I'm here to fill a void. This group has been created to represent the previously underrepresented."

More than 50 high-powered business leaders and officials, including Mayor Martin O'Malley; Aris Melissaratos, the secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development; and several county executives and legislators, attended the kickoff yesterday at the Canton offices of 1st Mariner Bank.

"It brings to the table a whole new set of voices," Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive officer of Sage Policy Group LLP and a member of the council's board of directors, said in an interview yesterday. "It's obvious that the future of Maryland's and indeed the future of the nation's economy is in the hands of the businesses that are entrepreneurial enough, innovative enough, flexible enough, to incorporate and market the latest technologies and employ the most modern business practices."

Aaron J. Greenfield, 32, who previously worked as special city solicitor for policy and development in the mayor's office, has been named as executive director of the not-for-profit organization. His salary was not disclosed.

In his role with the mayor's office, Greenfield coordinated Baltimore's homeland security efforts, advocated on the city's behalf before the General Assembly and Congress and helped businesses navigate city government.

The Maryland Business Council has more than two dozen founding members and now begins its general membership drive. Its board of directors includes Stephen A. Burch, president of Comcast Cable, Atlantic Division; Robert L. Caret, president of Towson University; Mary B. Halsey, president and chief executive of Cecil Federal Bank; and Patrick "Scunny" McCusker, owner of Nacho Mama's and Mama's on the Half Shell. The council's initial funding comes from a $100,000 grant from the 1st Mariner Bank Foundation and from founding members' membership dues.

"There are a myriad of challenges," Greenfield said in an interview yesterday. "If this were an easy mission, we wouldn't need an organization like this."

Among the obstacles faced by small businesses are dealing with high health-coverage costs, accessing affordable and dependable credit, finding good employees and navigating the maze of government, Greenfield said.

Despite the plethora of business organizations, the leaders who spoke yesterday seemed to share the sentiment that there was room for one more -- especially one with a stated mission different from the rest. Currently there are multiple business organizations in the state, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Washington Board of Trade and trade groups representing various industries.

In the Baltimore area, the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore works to attract and retain business in Greater Baltimore, while the Greater Baltimore Committee focuses on regional policy and infrastructure issues and business climate. The Downtown Partnership's role is to work with business and government to make downtown a good place to live, work and play. The chamber focuses on lobbying for business issues in Annapolis.

Greenfield, who has been working behind the scenes in developing the organization since December, said the council will work with the existing business groups to try to further a common agenda.

Small businesses make up 97 percent of all employers in the state and employ 52 percent of the Maryland work force, representing an annual payroll of more than $30 billion, he noted.

"I do agree there's some business clutter out there," Greenfield said. "We're different. Although business organizations have different missions, common threads, common challenges exist. We think that we can serve as not only a strong advocate for small- to medium-business owners, but can be an important partner to other business organizations."

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