Mike Seipp: the $100 million man

April 07, 1994|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Sun Staff Writer

Before Mike Seipp could become Baltimore's deputy housing commissioner several years ago, he had to defuse the idea that he was still a neighborhood agitator.

He had been a city employee for five years. But the image of a slightly scruffy and tireless organizer, someone who fights City Hall for a living, clung to him.

In the 1970s, he worked with a number of community organizations: HARBEL in Northeast Baltimore, the Coalition of Peninsula Organizations and the Greater Homewood group.

He was pleased by the reputation he had earned, yet anxious to show how much he had changed.

"I made the break when I joined the enemy -- the city," he told Marion W. Pines, then the city's housing commissioner.

"I decided I wanted to be one of the ones in power," he told her then.

That was 1985. Mr. Seipp has moved into more powerful positions almost every year since then -- while tenaciously hanging on to his neighborhood roots.

After a succession of public and private community development jobs, he is now organizing Baltimore's effort to win a $100 million Empowerment Zone grant from the Clinton administration.

His success may depend on how skillfully he blends the needs of poor neighborhoods with the demands of job-producing private businesses.

In third-floor offices at the Brokerage, the 42-year-old Baltimore native and a team of planners are working to devise by June 30 a plan rich enough in new ideas to win a competition involving 500 cities, counties and Indian reservations.

There will be six winners.

"This is totally up his alley," says Jacqueline H. Rogers, Maryland's secretary for housing and community development.

"He does particularly well with the kind of assignment he's got now, assignments with a lot of urgency and need for focus. To pull it all together you have to rally the human beings around the agenda," she says.

Mr. Seipp worked for Ms. Rogers between 1991 and last March, when he came back to the city as executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corporation, an organization that directs the city's physical development.

His annual salary is $72,000.

"His strength is his real strong commitment to neighborhoods," says Mark Sissman, an official of the Columbia-based Enterprise Foundation and another of Mr. Seipp's bosses when they both worked for the City of Baltimore.

"He takes very seriously the responsibility of government to give people real input and influence in decisions," Mr. Sissman says.

Mr. Seipp's experience with the city between 1980 and 1989 -- and with its neighborhoods -- gives him the perspective of both sides.

"He knows this city," Mrs. Pines says. "I would mention a street and he'd know every house in that neighborhood and everybody who lived in those houses."

Educated in Baltimore's Catholic schools, Mr. Seipp studied sociology at St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia.

After graduating in 1974, he joined Volunteers In Service To America, or VISTA, and was assigned to Baltimore.

After working as a neighborhood organizer during the '70s, he spent a brief period working a for community group in Portland, Maine. But he came back to Baltimore to work for Mr. Sissman at the city's housing department.

In 1989 he followed Mr. Sissman to Enterprise, a national housing development organization founded by James W. Rouse, the developer.

He left that job when he got sick of airplanes and when "not seeing my kids got old."

"Being a father is the best job I have," he says. "I wouldn't trade it for anything."

He and his wife, Jenny, and their four children live in the Lauraville neighborhood.

He said he wonders if today he would have the stamina to do the work of street-level organizing, a job of 14-hour days fueled by adrenalin.

Others say he remains a high-energy operator and he has even more faith in the importance of home-grown solutions.

"I view myself as a true believer."

A fundamental "empowerment" goal, he says, is to replace the lost cadres of neighborhood leaders, people who were part of classic neighborhood strengths: schools, churches, Little League, Scouts.

"When institutions break down -- when churches become commuter churches, when schools are run out of a bureaucracy instead of by parents and principals, when you don't see the cop on the beat and a kid can't identify the police officer as a human being -- then all the value systems begin to disintegrate," he says.

This old organizer is absolutely not saying the future of Baltimore and other cities depends on government.

"I view myself as a guy who can open doors for people so they can take power," he says. What government provides is a forum.

After all the years of dramatic programs, he says, the planners and the neighborhood leaders are developing a somewhat ironic perspective.

A bulletin board at the planning office seeks "Zone Vision" -- ideas that might be developed and included in the plan. Some of the offerings come on small, stick-on blue or yellow notes, a kind of studied graffiti.

"The zone," Mr. Seipp explains, "represents more than the plan. The zone represents the future. It stands for the best school, the best training program. If we can make things happen within the zone's boundary they will be duplicated elsewhere."

Already, the Empowerment staff is poking fun at itself and at those who think the disadvantaged want something exotic, something mysterious.

"Zone wants what everyone wants," declares one of the Vision-grams: jobs, good schools, decent housing, for example.

Part of believing in cities, Mr. Seipp says, is recognizing that the nation took a 12-year holiday from urban redevelopment. But, he says, even after the demise of the War on Poverty, Model Cities, the Concentrated Employment and Training Program, he still finds optimism in the neighborhoods.

The question is not, 'Can we ever expect anti-poverty programs to succeed?' He says the question is this:

"Is there a desire to see it happen? If there is, it can be done."

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