GBC to unveil economic vision for Baltimore



It's vision time again for Baltimore, which has struggled for several years to articulate an economic development strategy that would build upon the city's great downtown-development successes of the 1970s and 1980s.

Tomorrow, the Greater Baltimore Committee, whose members include most major businesses in the area, will unveil its economic vision for the region at its annual dinner meeting. The modifier "economic" is significant here, for the GBC has already worked on civic and downtown-development visions.

In fact, the GBC has made less comprehensive efforts at an economic vision. Those studies and statements dealt with the region's potential in knowledge-based fields, namely professional services and biotechnology. "Industries of the mind" was the phrase the GBC eventually came up with, and it may well be part of tomorrow's elaborate presentation.

The group doesn't want to discuss its plans before tomorrow's unveiling, but draft copies of its vision have been floating around town, and one of them wafted through my window.

The GBC chose to build on its earlier efforts in biotechnology, enlarging them into a bigger economic base that it labels the life sciences. This broader vision presumably can appeal to and involve a broader segment of the community; it also benefits greatly from the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore's largest private employer and, arguably, its most prominent, world-class institution.

Economically, health care and its related sciences have been a tremendous growth industry. This fact is often expressed as a crisis over rising health-care costs. But if you invert that statement, what it also means is that health-related spending has been consuming a rising share of gross national product. An eighth of the economy is now in health care, and every expert expects the percentage to rise.

The GBC presumably will begin tomorrow to reveal how it plans to package and market this vision. Such details will be the proof of whether its vision rests on a good foundation and is viewed as workable by city and regional leaders.

"We are creating a vision trilogy out of this organization," GBC President Robert Keller said in a recent interview that excluded any specific discussion of the group's plans.

"The first piece of it, in terms of timing, was the State of Baltimore report [which said that] a healthy, interdependent city is critical to the future of the region. Part two is . . . the downtown strategy," Mr. Keller added, "and that 20-year vision [and] strategy talks about the downtown as the heart of the region. The third is a broader, fundamental direction in which we would like this community to enroll.

"Visions ought to be ankle-deep in reality -- feet in the mud -- and head in the clouds, with a wonderful creative tension that holds them together," he said. "That's what we're trying to do."

While the GBC was floating its smaller trial balloons over the past couple of years, other groups have also been active in the vision business. None of these efforts has really taken hold, however, while the stakes for Baltimore were rising as each balloon passed by for review and was effectively deflated.

The recession has dealt a severe blow to Maryland's formerly flush coffers, effectively removing the state as a source for any large-scale increase of funding to the city. Large-scale here means whatever it takes to make a meaningful dent in any of the city's growing problems -- education, housing, health, crime and on and on.

Even if the money was available, each passing year has weakened Baltimore's clout with legislators in Annapolis, making harder for the city to win favor.

Meanwhile, Mayor Kurt Schmoke's temperament (cautious, detached, coolly rational) and lack of prior management experience have contributed to the widespread perception of weak leadership at the top of city government.

Instead of forging a consensus among the many groups and individuals intensely interested in the city's future, the mayor appears to have deferred to the groups themselves. Lacking the legitimacy of office, as well as the programs to execute their views, these groups have largely gone nowhere with their smaller-scale visions.

This lack of central leadership and growing money problems also have contributed to a lot of second-guessing and professional backbiting in the vision business. Some economic-development experts have even been dumping on the GBC ideas before their general release.

That's to be expected, I guess, as is the general criticism of the GBC as a spokesman only for the business establishment. Yet, the GBC has generally been taking "the high road" on community issues.

It has involved itself heavily with education and state spending, matterst that have little to do with the grubby issues of next quarter's sales and earnings (although everything to do with business conditions 10 years from now).

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