World trade institute in Md. slow to get off ground

May 15, 1991|By David Conn

The question is, what has the World Trade Center Institute been doing for 2 1/2 years?

The institute, first proposed in 1988, was supposed to help Maryland businesses take advantage of emerging opportunities in international trade. It was one of many state programs that would bring public and private resources together to advance the cause of economic development in Maryland. And at a time of increasing globalization of business, the need was never greater.

Now, more than half a million dollars of state and private money later, the institute has very little to show for the time and effort. Despite spending nearly $100,000 on a "needs assessment" report, the organization has yet to agree on a mission statement, staffers and board members said.

Few programs have been developed, and the institute can point rTC to few success stories. Because of a lack of direction and slackening private sector funding, the goals of the institute's first director, Christopher J. Brescia, largely have been abandoned or postponed indefinitely, according to nearly everyone currently involved in the venture.

By contrast, there is wide agreement that the new director of the World Trade Center Institute, Elizabeth K. Nitze, is filled with energy and ideas and commands the respect of her board of directors.

In fact, most people involved in the institute believe Ms. Nitze, 31, is in a good position to learn from the experiences of her predecessor. She already is beginning to develop activities and programs to help Maryland companies do business abroad, they said.

Ms. Nitze, a Harvard and Stanford Business School graduate who originally was hired as a consultant to help establish the institute, said her short-term goals include setting up seminars focused on particular countries and on specific industries. The first one, scheduled for late July, will be about Mexico and will feature government, academic and industry officials, including Mexico's ambassador to the United States and the country's economic and agriculture ministers.

She is also working to organize events for next week's World Trade Week, which will involve the members of the Maryland Council of International Organizations. The group, whose founding is regarded as one of the few concrete achievements of Mr. Brescia's tenure, brings together most of the area's university, government and private-sector agencies that are involved in international trade.

Most of the board members interviewed for this article expressed confidence in Ms. Nitze and optimism about the institute's future. But they admit the institute was slow in getting off the ground.

According to board members, current and former staffers and state budget documents, the organization mostly has been defining and redefining its mission, and spending quite a bit of state money on overhead in the process. Ms. Nitze was hired to help Harold Adams, the institute's chairman, set it up, and James Crupi, a consultant from Plano, Texas, spent more than a year surveying the marketplace to determine what the organization should do, at a cost of about $85,000.

Mr. Brescia, who was hired as executive director when the institute finally opened its doors in June 1990, resigned last month. He chose not to talk about his brief experience with the institute and why he left, except to say, "The vision of what the organization intended to do has changed. It's not the vision that the board of directors and I had shared" when he first was hired.

"A lot of it did have to do with money," Mr. Brescia said.

Mr. Adams, the RTKL Associates chairman who was tapped by Gov. William Donald Schaefer to chair the institute, explained that "with the general economic slowdown in the state of Maryland and everywhere, we've had to cut back our activities and our mission. . . . We've had to cut our activities to match our funding."

The institute originally was championed in the General Assembly by J. Randall Evans, secretary of economic and employment development, although half of its funding eventually was to come from private sources. A six-year projected budget made for the 1989 General Assembly requested fiscal 1989 spending of $194,482. That amount was to increase slightly over each of the next few years.

The funding started in July 1988. The fiscal 1989 budget covered a director, at a salary of $50,000, and one support staffer; various office supplies; 1,000 square feet of space in the World Trade Center; and the services of a "needs assessment consultant" at $85,000.

By the time Mr. Brescia left, he had hired six others, was working in about 1,700 square feet of space and had notified state budget analysts that the institute's projected spending had ballooned to an estimated $843,000 for fiscal 1991. (Ms. Nitze since has cut the staff down to three and moved to about 500 square feet of space.)

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