Mayoral candidates seek to reverse long slide in city jobs

Charleta Jones isn't looking for just one job. She's looking for two: something full time and something on the side, to help repair the financial damage she suffered after losing her job last year as a paratransit driver.

"I've been out of work for over a year, so I have to catch up on everything," the 39-year-old Reservoir Hill woman said last week.

Jones has a range of experiences on which to draw, including security, housekeeping and fast food, and she's landing interviews. Still, she said, the job market is decidedly rough. "It's more of a struggle, period."

The number of people working in Baltimore has dropped for the past two decades, as manufacturing plants have shut their doors and other businesses have left for surrounding counties. And while new shops and offices have opened in the neighborhoods around the Inner Harbor, residents of outlying communities say their neighborhoods are stagnating or worse.

As Baltimore's mayoral candidates present their economic development credentials and plans, economists warn that Baltimore stands at a crossroads: The city must draw new businesses and boost job opportunities or face continued population loss, declining property values and more crime.

"In many ways, the city is its worst enemy," said Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive officer of the Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore economic consulting firm. "As Towson and Columbia become more dense, they become much more relevant as urban competitors to Baltimore City. So the clock is ticking. The city needs to get this right soon."

Since Stephanie Rawlings-Blake became mayor in February 2010, she has pushed for large — and often controversial — projects. Her economic development team has focused in recent months on the Baltimore Grand Prix and the planned slots casino, while pushing for progress on West Baltimore's Superblock and State Center developments.

"One of the reasons I support major events is to create jobs," she said. "We have to focus on the city's areas of strength — health care, biotech, life sciences."

Rawlings-Blake says that she is streamlining government agencies to make "doing business with the city predictable" and supporting school programs that prepare young people to work in fields that are growing.

But Rawlings-Blake's challengers in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary, who include former city planning director Otis Rolley, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, former Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors Vice President Joseph T. "Jody" Landers and Clerk of Court Frank M. Conaway Sr., say the city needs to forge a new path.

Rolley says he has a five-pronged plan to increase business that includes teaming up with universities and hospitals to nurture small businesses and overhauling the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public economic development arm.

"Instead of just having the BDC working as a real estate company, chasing after one development after the next, they should be really serving entrepreneurs and small businesses," said Rolley, who was planning director under Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Rolley said he would push the BDC to publish statistics about its projects. "The BDC is giving out loans and grants without checks and balances or real analysis," he said. "It's almost like the honor system, except there is no honor — look at our unemployment rate."

Rolley — who holds a master's degree in urban planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and who worked for the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance — says he also would revamp the city's bus line to make it easier to for city residents to get to work.

Pugh, too, says she would revamp the BDC. She says she would evenly distribute tax credits around the city — not just to large downtown projects.

"We need to balance what we do downtown with what we do uptown," said Pugh, who represents West Baltimore in the state Senate. "If we need [tax incentives] to get light manufacturing in Baltimore, that's what we do. If we need [tax incentives] to get supermarkets in our neighborhoods, that's what we do."

Pugh says she would force the city to sign more contracts with local businesses. And she would work with small businesses to help them meet the needs of the city's large hospitals and universities.

"I'd sit down with the corporate community and begin to see what their needs are," she said. "How many hospital gowns do they use? How can we met their needs here in our city?"

Landers believes that lowering the city's property tax rate for homes and businesses, while raising taxes on vacant buildings, would spur growth. And he says he would create jobs by starting a public works initiative — paid for with bonds — to clean up city streets.

"Coming up with a better plan to address the vacant housing plan is also a way to generate jobs," said Landers. "There are more than 30,000 vacant properties and structures in the city. Just trying to fix up, clean or demolish those vacants is going to create jobs."

Of all the candidates, Conaway has been most vocal in calling for new employment opportunities. So vocal, in fact, that he said the word "jobs" 24 times during a recent candidates forum.

Conaway would like to widen the train tunnel under Howard Street to accommodate more shipping, which he says would create blue-collar jobs.

Rawlings-Blake says that while her big-ticket projects draw the most attention, she pushed through initiatives to help small businesses when she was president of the City Council. She has also maintained funding for the city's career centers despite two consecutive years of significant budget shortfalls.

She stresses that Baltimore isn't alone in its economic struggles.

"I don't know many cities that aren't in the same position," Rawlings-Blake said. "Baltimore, like many major cities, has suffered from disinvestment for many reasons. People left because of crime. People left because of a struggling school system.

"When population is lost because of such things, businesses follow."

But Rawlings-Blake says she is "very hopeful and encouraged" that the city's economy will improve.

"My administration continues to push for jobs of the future," she said. She notes that she devoted an additional $100,000 to Canton's Emerging Technology Center — an incubator for new tech companies — in the current city budget.

But job seekers say they see few signs to inspire hope.

Baltimore's unemployment rate of 10 percent is one of the highest in the state. The rate doesn't capture the full extent of the problem because people who aren't actively looking for work when surveyed — even if they do want a job — aren't counted as unemployed.

Just a little over half — 54 percent — of city residents 16 years old or older had jobs in 2009, the most recent figures from the Census Bureau. Statewide, the figure was 64 percent.

When he's lucky, Damiasi Smith hauls boxes in warehouses or cleans offices — temporary jobs that last a few weeks or months.

But the 32-year-old — who has a criminal record and lacks a car and a high school diploma — has not had steady work in more than four years. And most of the temporary jobs that he has had have been in the county.

"There are jobs in Maryland, but there are no jobs in the city," said Smith, a West Baltimore resident who sought job counseling last week at Goodwill Industries of Central Maryland. "It's even hard to get a job at fast-food spots now. Some fast-food spots want a high school diploma."

Jennifer S. Vey, a fellow with the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program and a Baltimore resident, is studying the city's economy.

She said the key to expanding that economy is molding students to be the workers of tomorrow. Baltimore needs a public school system that's graduating students who are able to go to college, enroll in a training program or land a job, Vey said.

The city also needs the publicly funded workforce-training system, training providers and employers to all be focused on "ensuring people are getting the skills so they're prepared for jobs in the next economy," she said.

Baltimore Development Corp. President M.J. "Jay" Brodie says the city's long loss of employment — more than 100,000 jobs, or a quarter of the job base, since 1990 — is a story shared by many older industrial U.S. cities. Traditional manufacturing jobs went south, then overseas. Some simply disappeared.

"There is no likelihood they're coming back," he said.

Baltimore's manufacturing employment base is just a third of its 1990 size, shrinking from 43,000 jobs to under 13,000.

Brodie disputes accusations that his agency is overly focused on downtown. He says the BDC supports many smaller neighborhood projects.

Basu, the economist, says that the city chokes growth with a thicket of unnecessary regulations.

He said developers are often repelled by the city's building height restrictions, mandatory traffic studies and Urban Design and Review Panel, which requires developers to secure the approval of architects before they may build.

"I've talked to developers who said their first choice was to invest in the city, but they found it too problematic, too onerous, too expensive, so they ended up in the county," Basu said. "We should be desperate for investment. We need it badly. Economic growth in the city would solve many of our problems."

Developers usually seek to build downtown or in the wealthier neighborhoods in the center of the city, because the rents in other neighborhoods are too low to offset construction costs.

Smith, the West Baltimore job seeker, says he has felt the city's economic pinch his whole life. He started selling drugs when he was 12 to help support his family, he said, and eventually landed in jail.

Last week, he signed up with Goodwill's staffing agency, in hopes that the nonprofit could help him find an employer on a bus route willing to hire an ex-offender.

He pleaded with a Goodwill office manager to find him a job. Was anything available today? Tomorrow?

She shook her head.

"Anything beats a blank," Smith said. "I've seen zero come in every day. I need to change that zero to an amount of money."