Life sciences: Baltimore's future? Business panel envisions new direction for region

May 24, 1991|By Blair S. Walker Martin Evans of The Sun's Metro Desk contributed to this report.

In another decade or so, life sciences will form the backbone of the region's economy, the Greater Baltimore Committee said yesterday.

The Baltimore area will enjoy an international reputation for life sciences businesses, in much the way California's Silicon Valley does for computers, and thousands of city residents will be employed in high-paying, highly skilled jobs within the life sciences field, according to a report unveiled last night by the GBC.

The GBC, which counts some of the region's top businesspeople among its members, said that its economic forecast isn't a pipe dream: It has committed its clout and reputation to making the assessment a reality.

"This vision is a real vision," declared William L. Jews, a GBC official. "I think we have enough hopelessness and despair out there that we can get people to begin to see that there's real opportunity in this."

Mr. Jews, president and chief executive officer of Dimensions Health Corp. in Prince George's County, added, "We've got to really believe it. If I didn't believe it, I wouldn't be sitting here doing this."

Mr. Jews, a city resident who sits on the board of Maryland National Bank and whose corporation oversees two hospitals and a nursing facility, led a 20-member GBC task force responsible for identifying new sources of regional job growth. Their work led to the initiative on life sciences.

There are strong indications that a transition from a smokestack economy to a test tube economy has already started, GBC President Robert Keller said.

"There has been a decline in the traditional economic engines," Mr. Keller said. "When I came to GBC in 1981, the largest private employer in Maryland was Bethlehem Steel. Five years ago, the largest private employer in the region was Westinghouse. Still manufacturing, but engineering-driven manufacturing.

"Today the largest private employer in Maryland are the Hopkins institutions -- industries of the mind. That, if you think about it, in 10 years is a dramatic shift in the economy. And that is a shift that is quite unlikely to reverse."

The life sciences umbrella covers businesses and institutions that develop pharmaceuticals, conduct disease-related research and are involved in the biotechnology field.

ASixteen of the region's top 50 employers are in the life sciences field, including the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and Johns Hopkins University and the Johns Hopkins Health System, which employ 28,000 workers.

Because an infrastructure conducive to life sciences is in place doesn't mean that the transformation will magically happen.

The GBC said it will take four steps:

*Baltimore must develop into a learning center. The region would have to move beyond the rhetoric of school reform, with life sciences serving as a potential focal point for new directions in education and training.

*A push to attract more medical and scientific associations to the region.

*More of an entrepreneurial business climate, which would be achieved in part by encouraging area universities to increase commitments to new business start-ups.

*All segments of Baltimore's community would participate in the shift toward a life sciences economy, including women and minorities.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who addressed the GBC meeting at the Hyatt Regency where the proposal was unveiled last night before an audience of business leaders, politicians and educators, said the city cannot have a successful future without economic development in the black community.

The mayor urged business leaders to adopt the same minority inclusion guidelines that govern the awarding of city contracts. Those guidelines require contractors doing business with the city to subcontract set portions of the work to minority- and women-owned firms.

He also urged the GBC to study black businesses with an eye toward determining how they could be made more successful and could contribute to the city's overall economic vitality.

"If the knowledge train takes off down the track and leaves half the city behind, its trip will be a failure," Mr. Schmoke said. "The time is past for delaying and debating the question of opening up Baltimore's development to minorities and women."

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who followed Mr. Schmoke to the podium, said he is concerned about Baltimore's prospects and painted a picture of a city in danger of falling apart. "I'm worried about the city, I think that's obvious," Mr. Schaefer said. "I see too many vacancies. I see dirt and I see trash."

The move to a life sciences-based economy will require lots of money.

GBC Deputy Director Tom Chmura said the state proved its farsightedness by funding the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration and the Maryland Bioprocessing Center. He was confident that corporations would provide financial backing to support a life sciences initiative.

"Right now, we're at the stage of putting out the vision and the challenge," Mr. Chmura said.

"As we go forward, we are confident that the institutions in town will respond."

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