Today's announcement by a consortium of Baltimore businesses and institutions of their intent to beef up investments in the community through more inclusive contracting and hiring practices comes as a much-needed shot in the arm for a city still recovering from last year's unrest. No one expects the $69 million initiative to solve all of Baltimore's problems. But it's a sign of the city's resilience that more than two dozen of its leading corporate citizens and non-profit anchors have stepped up as a group to address issues that long have been allowed to fester. We only wish it had happened sooner.
The initiative, called BLocal, aims to improve the prospects of minority-owned businesses and job seekers from the city's most distressed neighborhoods. The effort is being spearheaded by Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels, Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System CEO Ronald R. Peterson and Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. CEO Calvin Butler, and it includes firms such as Legg Mason, T. Rowe Price, Under Armour, the Cordish Cos. and Whiting-Turner. Over the next three years they have pledged to enter into more design and construction contracts with minority and women-owned businesses and to buy more goods from local vendors. Part of the initiative also calls for creating a "contractor's college" to train local businesses how to better compete for work.
The BLocal initiative will complement a major state aid package for Baltimore approved by the General Assembly this year to fund such measures as an expanded college scholarship program, neighborhood revival grants and youth enrichment programs. Rep. Elijah Cummings, who represents the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where rioting broke out last year after the death of Freddie Gray, called the private initiative an "innovative partnership [that] will help rebuild Baltimore by providing real economic opportunity to our residents." It won't magically transform Baltimore overnight, he said, but it certainly moves the city in a positive direction.
The initiative builds on an already existing program at Hopkins, called HopkinsLocal, which aims to make more use of local resources for hiring, purchases and on construction projects. In addition, the university's health system proposed joining with other hospitals in Baltimore and around the state to create 1,000 entry level jobs specifically for residents of the city's poorest neighborhoods. That initiative sufferred a setback when the state approved hospital rate raises only sufficient to cover about 375 new jobs, but Mr. Daniels insisted the university would continue to use its economic leverage to "help bolster the local economy, not on a project-by-project basis, but through a collective, deep-seated change approach." Following through on that promise will pose challenges for the entire group, but it is essential to the mission's success.
The BLocal initiative is similar to private efforts in Chicago and Philadelphia that enlist local businesses and institutions to focus on creating employment opportunities for poor city residents, especially for ex-offenders whose criminal records make it hard for them to find a job. In such cases, local churches have often set an example for private businesses and institutions by hiring ex-offenders to perform various tasks in food pantries and on urban farms as a way of easing their re-entry into society. Hopkins has also played a leading role in that sort of effort here.
Baltimore's initiative is notable in that the idea originated with private businesses and institutions themselves rather than with the city's elected officials. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake didn't attend the announcement, nor were any City Council members evident in the crowd. At a time when the mayor is inexplicably cutting funds for after-school programs, the decision by this group of private sector leaders to make more efficient use of local resources to combat joblessness and create opportunities reflects a self-imposed duty to do what they can to better our city. We applaud them for recognizing their civic responsibilities.
The riots last year threw a bright spotlight on the challenges facing the residents of neighborhoods sufferring from high unemployment and poverty rates and the hopelessness and despair that breeds. Add to that poor schools, lack of access to adequate health care and a vicious drug trade, and it's no wonder people feel the deck is stacked against them. For the disadvantaged residents of inner city Baltimore, institutions like Hopkins have often been viewed with suspicion and distrust, while major local corporations like Under Armour and T. Rowe Price have not been symbols of hope and opportunity but reminders of inequality. What is so powerful about this initiative is not just the dollars it will funnel into communities that need them but the statement by Baltimore's most powerful residents that the problems of the city's powerless matter to them, too. It will take more than B Local to solve the city's problems, but those problems can't be solved at all with out the kind of understanding that B Local represents.