Development officials defend unit

March 23, 1995|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore Development Corp. officials yesterday defended the city's quasi-public economic development agency before a City Council subcommittee against charges that it has largely failed to respond to city businesses' needs.

"There's a growing concern that we are not doing enough to retain businesses, attract new businesses and keep the city viable," said City Councilman Martin O'Malley, chairman of the City Council's economic development subcommittee, who called for a hearing to discuss the future of the agency.

Mr. O'Malley convened the hearing as the result of an article in The Sun in December that detailed the loss of 60,000 city jobs in the past five years and numerous complaints about the agency from a variety of businesses. Those complaints ranged from a lack of leadership to a growing perception that BDC was unwilling to aid local business.

BDC officials responded yesterday by stating that in 1994 it assisted 450 companies, including Fila Inc. and PTP Industries, in either locating or expanding within the city, assistance that led to the creation of 4,700 new jobs, according to Robert Hannon, a BDC executive vice president.

"The organization is a lean organization," said Mr. Hannon, who joined BDC 11 months ago. "It has a professional staff that is organized and well-managed."

Furthermore, the agency's 34 employees -- down from 65 in 1991 -- are juggling 61 different projects "in various stages of planning or development," and dealing with 97 business prospects that could provide 6,500 jobs and occupy 2.5 million square feet of commercial space.

"With that small staff, we've been able to handle those 61 projects in intimate, intimate detail," said Michelle Whelley, another BDC executive vice president.

Officials from various businesses -- including Londontown Corp., maker of London Fog coats, and Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. -- also testified that BDC has done a capable job.

"We have experience with sister agencies across the country, and I can tell you categorically that BDC ranks among the very best," said Robert Minutoli, a senior vice president of the Rouse Co., the developer of Harborplace and various city real estate projects.

"They're not perfect. No one is. But if they can be faulted on anything, it's for trying to do too much with too little resources," Mr. Minutoli said.

The BDC officials also noted that the agency's scope has greatly expanded and that its resources have diminished in the four years since Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke merged various city economic development components into a single entity in an effort to cut costs. BDC currently has a $2.8 million budget.

"It does seem as if you're managing a huge load, and I have to believe that these projects take away from making the rounds and seeing existing businesses," Mr. O'Malley said.

"Add on top of that the baby elephant of the empowerment zone, and I can see why some people say there needs to be a division," he said, referring to the $100 million federal program of tax breaks and job-creation incentives aimed at three city neighborhoods. "Why doesn't it make sense to divide you up again and get funding for each?"

Mr. Hannon said that the merger created "mutual support" and that the agency has succeeded even though the city's service sector and manufacturing base has been shrinking steadily in recent years.

"We've not made a lot of progress in lowering vacancy rates," Mr. Hannon acknowledged. "And we've seen a substantial decline in manufacturing jobs in Baltimore in the past 10 years.

"The charge before BDC is a formidable one," he added. "When something comes in, we respond the best way we can."

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