GBC at a crossroads

August 31, 1993

In its 38 years as the champion of Maryland's largest city and its metropolitan region, the Greater Baltimore Committee has had only two chief executives. When Donald P. Hutchinson takes over the helm in mid-October, he will become a president of a leadership group with a proud past, confusing present and a challenging future.

William Boucher III, GBC's chief executive from 1955 to 1981, brought to the job a business background and an intimate knowledge of Baltimore as a city ruled by old families. His was an exciting tenure in exciting times. Charles Center was completed, Inner Harbor redevelopment started, a rapid rail system designed.

He was succeeded by Robert Keller, a journalist, who witnessed a major transformation of the local business establishment. Old-line department stores abandoned the downtown, many other Baltimore institutions were either acquired by out-of-state corporations or moved their headquarters to the suburbs. The situation grew increasingly difficult toward the end of his 12-year tenure, when a deep recession played havoc with many of the city's erstwhile powerhouses and their leadership.

Mr. Hutchinson, a former state legislator and Baltimore County executive, will be the first GBC president with a strong suburban identification. It is not surprising, then, that he tends to look at things in a broader context than his two city-oriented predecessors. "We view this as one region with Baltimore at the center or heart of it," he said.

It may be premature to predict how that pronounced metropolitan outlook will transform the GBC. But there is little question that the organization is ready for change and a redefinition of its function.

Ever since it swallowed the Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce in 1978, the GBC has had trouble focusing tightly on matters at hand. It tried to be all things to all people.

The more it tried, the less its effort was appreciated. Maryland Economic Growth Associates, the organization Mr. Hutchinson headed in recent years, spun off from the GBC on the grounds that it was doing little in terms of statewide economic lobbying. More recently, small city businesses unhappy with the GBC's focus have revived a separate chamber of commerce.

Mr. Hutchinson's challenge will be to redefine the GBC. He has to rejuvenate the organization and decide whether it can thrive as an organization for chief executive officers at a time when those top executives are unlikely to have much time for outside civic commitments. His will be a tough task but one which, if it can be done at all, can be done by a politician.

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