Rebuilding BDC Brodie: Nine months into the job, the latest president of Baltimore Development Corp. hopes getting the small details right will lead to big results.

September 29, 1996|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN STAFF

Return the phone calls, M. Jay Brodie admonishes his people. Get the little stuff right. Push the sanitation department to install sidewalk trash cans for the litter-bound merchant. Help the guy who needs a zoning change.

"Of such great things is economic development made," says Brodie, the president of Baltimore Development Corp. since January. "I'm not being facetious."

He's really not.

BDC, the city's economic development agency, was bashed in the past for getting the little stuff wrong -- for ignoring messages, losing paperwork and failing to help its main customers, Baltimore's businesses. As the agency's new leader, Brodie knows he'll be judged, in part, on how well that gets fixed.

Nine months into the job, Brodie, 60, and BDC's new, independent board have reorganized the agency, stressed customer service, improved financial expertise, focused their limited resources more tightly, and considered new incentives to lure and keep businesses.

Among other priorities, BDC wants to lure a major distribution center to Southeast Baltimore, float new parking bonds and amass a privately funded economic-development war chest, similar to ones in Cleveland and St. Louis.

Business leaders give Brodie mainly positive early reviews, although all say that it's too soon to judge the true merit of the new BDC. Brodie himself acknowledges that progress hasn't been as quick as he would like. "I'm impatient," he said in BDC offices at 36 S. Charles.

But something else becomes clear in interviews with Brodie and Baltimore business people: The limits to what even a well-run BDC and its 38 employees can hope to accomplish.

Brodie's focus on the minutiae of customer service -- something everyone agrees is needed -- also highlights the fact that there are much bigger, more consequential forces that he can't control. Crime. Sub-par city schools. Global competition and mergers hurting local businesses. A city economic development budget that many believe is far too small.

"I was impressed by his enthusiasm," said Edwin F. Hale Jr., chairman of Hale Intermodal Transport Co. and First Mariner Bank. "Whether or not he has the resources to speed up or help economic development, I don't know. It's easy to be enthusiastic, but it takes funding."

More than 60,000 jobs have disappeared from Baltimore since the 1980s, and while the losses have slowed, they continue. Brodie flatly refuses to promise that they will stop.

"It would be foolish to think we could keep each and every one of the jobs in the city of Baltimore," he said. Later he added, "There are economic tides that are bigger than mayors, bigger than city councils, bigger than economic development corporations."

Brodie's arrival came after much criticism of the city's economic development agency and the appointment last year of an independent BDC board of nine private business people and two city representatives. Brodie's predecessor reported to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Brodie reports to the board.

Most BDC staffers haven't changed; four resigned since Brodie came and seven new ones have been hired. But Brodie has reorganized, appointing teams to focus on specific city regions, acquiring more financial pros, and focusing on key city industries such as health care, tourism, culture, finance, universities and telecommunications.

The staff got training on teamwork, cultural diversity and financial analysis. They receive regular evaluations now. "That wasn't happening," Brodie said.

He and his lieutenants pay unsolicited calls on city businesses. "This was not particularly done before," he said. They analyze development deals more closely. "We're certainly doing investment and return analysis of the kind that was never done before," he said.

Although it doesn't have a lot of deals on its trophy wall, the new BDC has fetched positive early evaluations.

A complicated, $1.5 million package that helped Chesapeake Biological Laboratories Inc. to consolidate its headquarters and factory downtown "looked creative," said E. B. Hutton Jr., president of medical publisher Waverly Inc. and a prior BDC critic. "That's the kind of deal you like to see. While it may not be a huge operation, those little kinds of things are how you make improvements."

BDC, which has a yearly operating budget of $2.8 million, isn't yet completely user friendly, several executives say.

"They may not be there yet in terms of quality customer service, but they're improving the basics," added Sherry Welch, owner of the Welch Co., a consulting firm for nonprofits, and president of the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce. "My sense of it is that it's better."

One of Brodie's biggest admirers is Michael Conte, longtime Baltimore watcher and head of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson State University.

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