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Politics

Baltimore business leaders, elected officials to meet Thursday on squeegee issue

Under mounting pressure from businesses and residents, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott is convening a work group of local stakeholders beginning Thursday to develop a strategy for handling issues related to squeegee workers.

Dubbed the “Squeegee Collaborative,” according to a letter obtained by The Baltimore Sun, the group will include business, nonprofit and youth leaders and elected officials.

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The initiative comes as long-running tensions over the workers escalated last week when a confrontation between a driver and a group of squeegee workers ended with deadly gunfire. The man, Timothy Reynolds of Baltimore, swung a baseball bat at several squeegee workers after an altercation, and one of the youths pulled a gun in response, killing Reynolds, authorities say.

The fatal shooting at the intersection of Light and Conway streets in the Inner Harbor drew multiple calls for the city to do more about a concern that many, particularly those who work downtown, had been raising for years.

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“Impatience is growing,” said Augie Chiasera, M&T Bank president for the Baltimore region.

The collaborative will meet Thursday afternoon at Coppin State University, the first of a series of meetings over the course of four to six weeks, “to develop a citywide, public, private and community-based response to the challenges and opportunities squeegee activity presents to the City of Baltimore,” according to an invitation issued by Deputy Mayor Faith P. Leach.

Co-chairing the collaborative with Leach will be John Brothers, president of the T. Rowe Price Foundation, and Joseph Jones, president and CEO of the Center for Urban Families, the letter said.

“The stakes are high for Baltimore,” Jones told The Sun. “We have someone who lost his life. We’ve got young people who don’t see a life beyond the intersection. We have companies that have to get business done.”

Jones, whose center supports children, families and fatherhood, said the collaborative will bring a wide range of people to the table, including “the squeegee kids, most importantly,” in an open-ended process to develop a plan to present to the mayor.

Baltimore Police have identified a 15-year-old boy as a person of interest in the shooting, three people with knowledge of the investigation told The Baltimore Sun for an article Monday, although a police spokeswoman declined to discuss that.

The shooting sparked social and political outrage, with the description of a middle-aged white man wielding a baseball bat toward a group of Black youths showcasing the racial undertones of the city’s squeegee debate.

Accusations of violence, property destruction and harassment, sometimes substantiated, are regularly used as evidence the city must do something about the squeegee workers.

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On the other side of the debate are people who argue squeegee workers are on city corners for their survival, providing money for younger siblings, parents or their own children.

Late last year, Baltimore launched the latest effort at outreach to squeegee workers, forming an employment program pairing former squeegee workers with jobs in the hospitality industry, part of a larger push to find alternative employment for them.

According to Leach’s letter, the collaborative will develop a comprehensive strategy and the resources and policy changes necessary “to sustain viable alternatives to squeegeeing.” Scott is scheduled to speak about the squeegee issue after the meeting.

Leaders of major downtown institutions like T. Rowe Price have been vocal in the past on the issue of squeegee workers. In 2019, T. Rowe Price CEO and President Bill Stromberg called for a meeting with Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Scott, then the Democratic mayor and City Council president, and Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. Acting on behalf of more than a dozen major businesses, law firms and property owners, Stromberg cited “frustration” the workers posed to employees in a letter he sent the officials.

After the July 12 shooting of Reynolds, Stromberg’s successor, Robert W. Sharps, met with the office of now-Mayor Scott about the squeegee workers, T. Rowe spokesman Brian Lewbart said.

“This is an untenable situation,” Lewbart said in a statement.

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“Resolving the squeegee situation is a complex challenge and the recent incident highlights the need for the city to take greater action,” he said.

While declining to offer more specifics about the meeting, Lewbart said the wealth management firm, which has been based in Baltimore since its founding 85 years ago, remains committed to working with Scott and other city and civic leaders on the issue.

Brothers, of T. Rowe’s foundation and a co-chair of the mayor’s Squeegee Collaborative, could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

The M&T’s Chiasera said the squeegee workers are part of the larger concern of crime downtown. Public safety issues add to the current challenge of getting workers to feel comfortable returning to their offices now that pandemic restrictions have largely been lifted, he said, robbing downtown of its “vibrancy.”

Chiasera, who chairs the board of the city’s economic development arm, the Baltimore Development Corp., said he has been in contact recently with City Hall over the squeegee issue. And last summer, he convened a group of businesses to hear Scott and Harrison speak about their violence reduction plan.

“The proof will be in the pudding,” he said. “Based on feedback from my colleagues, employees, and also customers, there’s a desire to see more.”

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Five years ago, M&T moved into a new, mirror-like glass tower, One Light, and Chiasera said he has “zero” regrets about making such a big commitment to the central business district. More than 500 employees work on a hybrid schedule at the headquarters, with about 1,100 others working at Montgomery Park on the west side or at one of the 18 branches.

Chiasera said the greater police presence near the site of the fatal shooting has been welcomed by the downtown community. And he said he is glad that Scott has named the former acting police commissioner, Anthony Barksdale, as his deputy mayor for public safety. Barksdale was deputy commissioner during a time of lower crime rates, and Chiasera said his appointment could be a “catalyst” for getting the city on a better track.

“We’re not giving up,” Chiasera said. “The city is too important an asset in the region to walk away from.”

Shelonda Stokes, president of the Downtown Partnership, said the city has made strides in helping divert squeegee workers into other jobs. But, she said, the question was how to scale up such efforts.

“The challenge is, the needs of our city are so great,” she said. “You move 30 off [the streets], 80 off, another 80 come.”

Stokes said she is heartened because despite current frustrations with the squeegee workers, people recognize the need to address the underlying, systemic issues that propel them onto the intersections in the first place.

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“You don’t want to criminalize poverty,” she said. “How do we lean in and do more? Collectively as a city, how do we wrap our arms around that?”

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Barry Rosen, president and CEO of Gordon Feinblatt, said he believes the law firm had signed the letter the businesses sent to the mayor in 2019 because of a bad experience one employee had with a squeegee worker. The firm moved last year from Redwood Street downtown to Harbor East, due to the age and layout of its old building, which had staff spread out on multiple floors.

Rosen said he’s “adjusted” to the squeegee workers, and tries to keep dollar bills in his car for them, and believes the temperature surrounding the issue needs to be lowered.

“They’re just young men or kids doing something to earn a little bit of money,” he said.

He wonders if there’s a way, through signs or speakers playing music, to calm the intersections where the squeegee workers congregate, stressing etiquette and creating a less “confrontational” atmosphere.

“You can still have a police car there, but that in some way adds to the tension,” Rosen said. “It is a tense situation better dealt with, with empathy.

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“My wife, when she’s driving, always says ‘God bless you’ to them,” he said. “They make a little heart on the windshield, and it’s perfectly fine.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson and Lee O. Sanderlin contributed to this article.


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