Limited options for dealing with a bad situation



I'm afraid the good lord was all out of high-wattage bulbs when my turn came, because there's simply not much illumination when the old noggin finally lights up.

A case in point happened a few weeks ago, when the Citizens Planning & Housing Association sponsored an evening panel session dealing with "Economic Development in the Multi-Ethnic City."

I expected a stimulating discussion of ways that Baltimore's blacks can and are taking economic advantage of their growing political clout and majority status in the city. We have a black mayor, lots of other elected black politicians and many blacks in prominent city management jobs.

Despite a decade of Reagan-era reversals in equal opportunity, it's still 1991, right? Is it naive to assume that Baltimore's blacks might be cashing in -- finally -- on their enhanced position in the city?

You know the answer already, don't you? But I didn't, at least not until I'd sat through the panel and brooded on it for some time.

The session was moderated by Parren J. Mitchell, the venerable former U.S. representative from Baltimore. The panelists were David M. Gillece, the city's top economic development official; Daniel P. Henson, a real-estate development executive with Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse; Morris A. Iles, president of the Park Heights Development Corp., a neighborhood economic-development group; Joseph B. McNeely, head of a community-centered training organization focusing on economic development; and Jai Poong Ryu, a sociologist at Loyola College who advises the city on census matters and is active in the Korean community.

Now, it's no secret that Baltimore's minority population contains many economically depressed and disadvantaged people. We read about these inequalities all the time. I make my living, in part, by writing about such matters.

Still, I simply wasn't prepared to absorb the overwhelmingly negative messages that emerged from the panelists.

Some messages were delivered knowingly; they needed to be said and, in hindsight, weren't particularly surprising.

"You just can't have full civil rights without economic empowerment," former Representative Mitchell said, and there simply hasn't been such empowerment of blacks in Baltimore.

There are "no African-Americans above the level of vice president in major companies in Baltimore," commented Mr. Henson, who is a successful black executive, albeit at a fairly small company.

"You can walk through entire floors" of downtown office buildings "and not see the face of one African-American," at least not in a management job, he said.

"The citizens of this city," commented Mr. Iles, "should literally be up in arms over trends in this city" that pertain to economic opportunity.

Racial integration, to date, may have given black consumers broader choices but is perceived as hurting black-owned businesses. "When we were forced to do business with ourselves," Mr. Iles said, "we thrived within our community."

As downbeat as those messages were (and, perhaps, the current recession added to the gloom), the unsaid message from the panel that bothered me the most was the near-total lack of any strategies to deal with these problems.

Although the need for more blacks in management positions at all companies was stressed by Mr. Henson, the private sector was not really included when other minority panelists discussed ways to improve the economic life for most of the city's residents. It was at this point that my low-wattage bulb began flickering.

As the evening wore on, the discussions returned to two themes: Give minority businesses better access to government-funded projects, and encourage the formation of more minority-owned businesses.

Access to government contracts has proved a boon to only a small number of minority-owned companies.

Further, these programs generally were designed to provide a starting point to nurture minority firms, which were expected after a few years to learn how to fly on their own in the private sector. That simply hasn't happened.

Instead, too many such companies are trapped in a bureaucratic world of government contracts and grantsmanship. And their skills are likely to be more sharply honed in these areas than in the business abilities needed to compete in the private sector.

The government pie has been shrinking in recent years, creating real questions about any economic development strategy that is greatly dependent on government business.

As for stressing minority-owned businesses, the record here is hardly encouraging either. The overwhelming portion of income in the white community comes from wages earned by working for someone else. Realistically, this must be the near-total source of income in the minority community as well.

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