All Fired Up To Make City Hot Again

October 20, 1991|By Edward Gunts

The headline could have read: "Mayor names first female development chief in Baltimore history."

That would have put a more upbeat spin on the news that Honora M. Freeman, one of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's key aides for the past two years, was moving from City Hall to take control of the newly structured City of Baltimore Development Corp.

Instead, Ms. Freeman's appointment was buried beneath accounts of the sudden resignation of her predecessor, David M. Gillece, after an apparent power struggle between Mr. Gillece and mayoral advisers.

But the lack of fanfare, and the buzzing in local development circles about Mr. Gillece's departure, haven't fazed Ms. Freeman, who just completed two weeks in her new, $81,000-a-year job.

"We're going to be working harder than ever," she said. "We have a lot of projects to keep the fire under. But I think we also need to be looking at economic development issues citywide -- neighborhood revitalization and how we can influence some of the initiatives that could produce new technology-based jobs. We have to be more creative in how we go about building an even healthier business community."

Ms. Freeman's rise to the top of the city's development agency is a clear symbol of the mayor's effort to put women and minorities in positions of power. It also marks the latest chapter of the success story of a Philadelphia native who grew up in an Irish Catholic family with 13 brothers and sisters and had to put herself through college and law school.

The agency Ms. Freeman heads was created earlier this month by merging Baltimore Economic Development Corp., which has promoted economic development citywide, and Center City-Inner Harbor Development Inc., which has guided downtown development. The streamlined agency has a staff of 42 and an annual budget of $1.9 million. And it makes Ms. Freeman the mayor's eyes and ears on economic development.

Still, Ms. Freeman, 51, takes office during a miserable time for promoting business and redevelopment in Baltimore.

Recession-related layoffs and restructurings have taken a toll on many city businesses, including the financial, insurance and law firms that populate the downtown's core. Office vacancy rates are the highest in decades, as businesses shrink or leave in search of greener, suburban pastures.

Fortune magazine just lowered Baltimore's ranking in its annual list of "best cities for doing business," placing it 36th out of 50 in "pro-business attitude." And government cutbacks are only beginning to be felt: Ms. Freeman spent much of her first week in office figuring out how to trim her agency's budget for the rest of fiscal 1992 by 5.5 percent.

"It's a time of great challenge, of great challenge," she said during an interview in her office on a recent Saturday. (She can usually be found at work on Saturdays.) Her 16th-floor corner office in Charles Center has a unobstructed view of the new Camden Yards stadium.

"But I'm really enthusiastic about that challenge," she said. "If I could have designed a job that I would want, this is what I would have designed."

Ms. Freeman had just returned to Baltimore from Washington, where she joined Mayor Schmoke and several thousand other Baltimoreans to take part in the "Save Our Cities" march, and the event was still on her mind.

"We really want the business community to be in the forefront, working hand in hand with the mayor, ensuring that the General Assembly is aware of what's happening to cities . . ." she said. "It's in the business community's self-interest to be standing side by side with him and very clearly articulating the impact" of "draconian budget cuts."

"If the city has to make a choice between education and police protection, that affects every employer, every business man and woman in the city, every employee working in the city. And if the mayor has to make a choice between vaccinations for children and sanitation and trash pickup, that effects every employer and every business person in this city."

An engaging, self-confident woman who speaks rapidly and wears her hair in a distinctive, one-way sweep, Ms. Freeman is an attorney and public administrator by training and has nearly 15 years of experience in government, mostly in Baltimore County.

But she is relatively unknown to the Baltimore business community, primarily because she has been a behind-the-scenes player in the Schmoke administration. In her previous job as special assistant to the mayor, she was a liaison between the mayor's office and city development agencies, quietly assessing what was happening at the planning commission, housing department and other offices. Those who know her say she is friendly and accessible and has a sharp mind and a lively, if somewhat dry, sense of humor.

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