GBC's Midlife Crisis

September 03, 1993

At 38, the Greater Baltimore Committee is having a midlife crisis. It has developed a case of the blahs. Goals that once were so clear now seem confused. In brief, the leadership organization that played such a crucial role in the Charles Center renewal, the Inner Harbor redevelopment and myriad other key issues is treading water.

Donald P. Hutchinson, the former Baltimore County executive and state legislator, will have his work cut out for him when he becomes GBC's new president in mid-October. Only the third GBC leader since the group's founding, he has to redefine the GBC's mission and strategies. As if this were not difficult enough, he has to achieve this at a time when the local and national economies are in tortuously slow recovery and when few private-sector executives seem to have the incentive to think about civic matters unless there is an immediate impact on the corporation's bottom-line.

Mr. Hutchinson, 47, will be the first politician and the first suburbanite to preside over the GBC. Both of these attributes add strength to organization. Another major strength is his current job: president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

When the GBC was created, its strong Baltimore City orientation reflected the realities of the times: In 1955, the city was still Maryland's economic powerhouse. Nearly four decades later, the situation is much changed. The city is still important. But in addition to downtown, major economic decisions are being made every day throughout the metropolitan area -- and in faraway cities and states, where national headquarters for an increasing number of Baltimore companies are located.

In recent years, the GBC tried to respond to this challenge. But as it got involved in an ever-broader range of issues, critics charged it lost its focus. When the GBC failed to deal with that criticism, other organizations filled the void. First, the Maryland Economic Growth Associates was created to specifically lobby for statewide economic development issues, with Mr. Hutchinson as its executive. Then, a separate chamber of commerce was formed for Baltimore City out of concern by smaller businesses that the GBC had become a captive of the area's big corporations. (This was particularly ironic because the GBC itself had swallowed the original city chamber in 1978.)

Under Mr. Hutchinson, the GBC will have to pick and choose; it simply cannot be all things to all people. It could make a deliberate decision to become an advocate of metropolitanism, for example, calling into serious question whether a separate Baltimore Metropolitan Council (the old Regional Planning Council) is needed.

Similarly, the GBC will have to re-study its long-time membership criteria -- for chief executive officers only. With so many local companies now belonging to out-of-state entities, more inclusive membership rules may be needed.

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