A suburbanite moves to town

November 17, 1994

A few years ago, when Ryland Homes was looking for a new headquarters, the choices came down to staying in Columbia or moving to Baltimore's Inner Harbor. After some reflection, the huge nationwide builder decided to stay in Howard County.

By contrast, Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. has decided to relocate to Baltimore from Columbia, where the rapidly growing tutoring company started with just seven employees. It now has more than 200 people working in the headquarters and projects further rapid growth in the future.

"Growing companies can be spotlighted when they are in the downtown area," Sylvan President Douglas L. Becker told a Downtown Partnership breakfast meeting Wednesday.

He said the company began considering the move two years ago after winning tutoring contracts with Baltimore City public schools. "The city has supported us, and we want to give something back in a sense," Mr. Becker explained.

With projects like the city tutoring plus franchised learning centers and extensive testing contracts, Sylvan estimates its headquarters space needs will double within the next few years.

Baltimore City has lost some important companies in recent years, so it is reassuring to hear of Sylvan's interest. But the city administration, residents and the business community should also listen carefully to the rest of Mr. Becker's message before the Downtown Partnership meeting.

Referring to his company as the "Microsoft of education," Mr. Becker said that private education delivery enterprises will be a "multi-hundred-million-dollar industry in the future."

He said that Baltimore should do everything to take advantage of this trend and attract such firms here to form a "Silicon Valley of learning."

With the area's high concentration of universities, such firms indeed could find a home here. But that requires an aggressive recruiting effort and a recognition that America's education delivery industry is undergoing a revolutionary change.

Sylvan has contacted a real estate firm to assist in relocation. Several high-visibility sites downtown are under consideration. Among the "musts" on Mr. Becker's list are safety and easy parking.

Despite his young age -- he is just 28 -- Mr. Becker has quickly become a highly visible mover and shaker on many Baltimore boards. Perhaps his most exciting public venture is his key role in efforts to open an innovative children's museum complex near the Inner Harbor by the end of 1996.

With so much on his plate, it will be good to have Mr. Becker in Baltimore full time.

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