Economic director juggles hard times, big picture

October 23, 1991|By David Conn GR COLOR PHOTO

Mark L. Wasserman, for almost his entire career, has been the man in the shadows. The only light he saw was reflected off his boss, now-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, and the only heat he felt came from Mr. Schaefer, too.

Now, as Maryland's economic development chief, Mr. Wasserman knows the spotlight -- with a volume of meetings and speeches that amazes even him. Rare is the day he can enjoy his favorite solitary lunch of "yogurt, an apple and a small chunk of cheese."

And although he's still enjoying a honeymoon with his colleagues and with key legislators, Mr. Wasserman has felt the heat, too:

* Less than a month after he became secretary of the Department of Economic and Employment Development in September, Maryland lost to Virginia in a bid to attract a new Hershey Foods Corp. pasta-making plant.

* The state's financial problems have Mr. Wasserman cutting employees and what he considers crucial services from his department's $44 million budget.

* And legislative auditors released a report this month sharply critical of DEED's international division. The report accused top officers of misusing state funds and wasting taxpayers' money on foreign trade missions.

Despite the rush of crises and the sudden public interest in his work, Mr. Wasserman, 41, has no regrets about leaving Mr. Schaefer's side, as chief of the governor's staff, and joining his Cabinet. The father of two teen-age daughters, Mr. Wasserman said that his family understands his new job is just as time-consuming as his old one.

The Baltimore native, who grew up in Prince George's County, graduated from George Washington University and received a master's degree in planning from the University of Maryland. Mr. Wasserman's first job, in 1974, was in Baltimore's planning department, and two years later he joined then-Mayor Schaefer's physical development office.

Mr. Wasserman ran Mr. Schaefer's gubernatorial campaign in 1986 and the next year became his executive chief of administration, or chief of staff. When J. Randall Evans announced in early August that he would resign from DEED, Mr. Schaefer asked Mr. Wasserman to take over.

In the school of economic development, Mr. Wasserman is a level-headed thinker, willing to plot and plan for the long term. That attitude has been reinforced by the state's growing budget problems and the need to hit the target with every shot. It is his job to convince the lawmakers who fund his department that sometimes a good harvest is worth waiting for.

"It would be unreasonable to think that the foundation that's being poured right now in the technology area will bear fruit next year or the year after or the year after that," he said. "I know that in a world of executive and legislative oversight there is a need to produce results instantly, and I'm very sensitive to that. But on the other hand, it seems to me that part of strategy-making is to see the bigger picture."

That is one reason for helping Robert Hillman, chairman of the Baltimore Convention Center Authority, push the General Assembly to release the money to expand the city's Convention Center. Mr. Wasserman said that Maryland will lose ground to its competitors in the battle for tourist and convention business if the expansion is not done.

Once a relative stranger to the legislature, Mr. Wasserman has been making the rounds since his appointment to DEED. Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, the chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said that Mr. Wasserman has "made great strides" in building relationships with the General Assembly. "He's doing all the things he should be doing."

At the same time, business leaders say he is in a natural position to build on his many years of working with Baltimore's business community. "He is quite genuinely off to a roaring start," said Robert Keller, head of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

"He has in a lot of ways been aliaison between the governor and the business community," Mr. Keller said. "He's got a lot of chits out there. He's done a lot of favors."

Although economic development in the '90s may have appeared to put manufacturing on a back burner, "I am very anxious to let the manufacturing side of Maryland's economy know that . . . manufacturing matters. It's important, we're devoted to it, and there're plenty of services we can and do provide to Maryland manufacturers," Mr. Wasserman said.

Finally, although recent news has --ed hopes for an early economic recovery, Mr. Wasserman emphasized the role psychology plays in the market. He urged Marylanders to place hope in the benefits that will come from some of the events of next year, such as the opening of the light rail line and the new stadium, the continuing work on the Christopher Columbus marine center.

These things may result in more business for Maryland, Mr. Wasserman said. "There are some good things in the wings," he said, adding, "I say that with my fingers crossed."

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