Growth tied to unity, identity Metro alliance's chief seeks city, county to coordinate growth

March 05, 1997|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN STAFF

Don't think of Baltimore with Philadelphia, Cleveland and the rest of the Rust Belt, says metro Baltimore's new, highly touted economic saleswoman. Think Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., Seattle, San Diego.

"We don't want to be compared with" the Northeast burgs that Baltimoreans often consider their peers and main rivals, Ioanna Morfessis, new president and chief executive officer of the Greater Baltimore Alliance, said yesterday.

Rather, she said, Baltimore belongs in the league of metropolitan centers of "emerging technologies" that will lead the next stage of national economic expansion.

Baltimore got its first look yesterday at the person who is supposed to unite the city and its five orbiting counties into one TC economic-development zone. Morfessis, 45, now president and chief executive of the Greater Phoenix Research Council in Arizona, met area business and political leaders at a downtown breakfast.

Her mission is to market the Baltimore area as a region, not favoring one municipality over another, coordinating local economic development bosses and steering corporate prospects to appropriate spots.

In public remarks yesterday and a brief interview, Morfessis said that the area has "tremendous potential" but challenges, too. Among the latter is boosting a sense of regionalism.

"Cooperation is probably one of the hardest things to do in a community" of discrete municipalities, said Morfessis, whose appointment was first reported last week. "I'm sure there are going to be challenges. I'm sure there's going to be resistance. There always is resistance to change in a community."

Coming from a state that has cut personal and corporate income taxes and seen its economy blast off from a bad slump in the late 1980s, Morfessis said the tax environment is important for businesses. Tax cuts "definitely worked there," she said.

Maryland's General Assembly is contemplating a personal income-tax reduction to try to boost business growth, which has been slow in the Baltimore region and statewide compared with that of the country.

But taxes aren't the most important attribute for luring and keeping businesses, she said. "The presence of a skilled work force is the driving factor for where companies choose to locate," she added.

Smart, diligent workers can make up for disadvantages, she said. Some Maryland business leaders believe that the state needs a "right-to-work" law that allows all workers to choose whether or not to join a certified union at their company. The idea is that strong unions boost labor costs and scare away employers. But "many right-to-work states have had a lot of union victories," Morfessis said.

However, "worker costs are also very important," she said, including unemployment insurance and workers' compensation.

The Greater Baltimore Alliance's job is a function now common in major metro areas. But it is a function that Baltimore has lacked.

The Greater Baltimore Committee is a privately funded shop that concentrates on policy. The state's Department of Business and Economic Development sells Maryland; Baltimore Development Corp. sells the city.

GBA was founded in 1993, but only now is it hiring a boss of Morfessis' stature, amassing a substantial budget and moving from under the wing of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Various government and private sources have committed $7.5 million to GBA over the next five years.

While Baltimore may be behind other regions in setting up an umbrella economic-development organization, it now has the chance to learn from preceding groups, Morfessis said.

"Communities are trying to regionalize across the world," she said. "We can learn the lessons from these other regions."

She expects to be raising more money. GBA might need a budget as high as $5 million a year "if we want to have a credible and consistent message, to really differentiate ourselves from the pack," she said.

Morfessis expressed distaste for economic-development incentives -- Maryland's "Sunny Day" fund is one example -- for attracting and keeping employers. "If I had my druthers, there wouldn't be such a thing."

But she acknowledged the need to offer incentives when other areas do the same thing: "Incentives are necessary but need to be used prudently."

Morfessis will begin her new job May 5.

Pub Date: 3/05/97

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