Metro area's new hope for harmony Ioanna Morfessis new chief of Greater Baltimore Alliance

Praised for work in Phoenix

She faces challenge of marketing unified city and counties

March 30, 1997|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's City Council president thinks the rest of the state is out "to castrate city government." One Carroll County commissioner believes that "if Baltimore dies, it dies." A caucus of state legislators from Baltimore County once banned six colleagues whose impure districts include parts of Baltimore City.

Into this den of good will steps Ioanna Morfessis, charged with cementing metro Baltimore's motley parts and peddling the whole to the world.

It's not a job for the gauche or fainthearted, but neither was kicking an Arizona governor from the speech lectern.

Gov. Evan Mecham and people from Arizona State University were asking microchip consortium Sematech to put a big research lab in Phoenix. A Pontiac dealer who was later impeached and indicted, the governor was less than eloquent at the dress rehearsal. Morfessis fretted backstage.

"All of a sudden Dean Hayden was doing the presentation and Governor Mecham was standing off to the side," remembers Terry Goddard, Phoenix's mayor at the time. "She managed the finesse, and I'm not sure how she did it."

Finessing important people into unaccustomed roles is apparently only one talent of Morfessis, the highly touted, highly paid head of the Greater Baltimore Alliance. The GBA is a newly independent, regional economic-development agency financed with business donations and tax dollars. Ioanna Morfessis, 46, (pronounced ee-o-AH-na mor-FES-sis) was appointed chief executive this month.

As head of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council since 1989 and mistress of Phoenix's remarkable economic recovery, she has rivaled Phoenix Suns guard Kevin Johnson for the top share in local puffery and valentines.

Requirements for her successor "fall just short of walking on water," said the Business Journal, a Phoenix weekly. "Morfessis has been voted most influential woman in the Valley by our

readers virtually every time we poll them."

Lamentations over her exit became so acute that Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza felt obliged to point out to the local press that "she's not dead. She's just leaving town."

Walking on water might come in handy for the task of herding officials from Baltimore and its five surrounding counties into one economic-development parade.

Besides harboring the enmities natural to all municipal neighbors, metro Baltimore has failed before at development unity. It is one of the country's last big areas without a regional economic marketing organ. Its economy has struggled all decade.

Potential conflict between the GBA and its privately funded, political-action sister, the Greater Baltimore Committee, is an acknowledged concern. The GBA and the GBC have formally declared a fund-raising treaty, pledging not to compete for support, said GBC President Donald Hutchinson.

Nevertheless, prospects for sharp elbows between the two is "probably the biggest area of potential problem," said Raymond A. "Chip" Mason, chairman and chief executive of Legg Mason, the Baltimore investment house. "In the short term, it isn't a problem. I think everybody is aware of what is going on. In the long term, as people begin to bump and as organizations tend to get greedy, problems can turn up."

Morfessis promises harmony.

"I've given this a lot of thought," she said. "Don Hutchinson made it very clear that GBC's role is really focused on product development," and GBA's on selling the product of metro Baltimore to employers. "We agreed," she said, "that we need to work together."

Reasons to wonder how well Morfessis will share the podium with the powerful, connected Hutchinson include her own formidable pedigree.

"I hate to build her up too much, because then I think people will get unreasonable expectations," said former Mayor Goddard, now Arizona coordinator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

It's too late.

In the escalating interstate arms race over economic development, Morfessis is portrayed as something of a nuclear threat, a trophy catch who automatically will make business relocation pros think of crabs, Formstone and Orioles.

"Number one, she has the raw intelligence," said James McGraw, a consultant who helped the GBC plan and launch the GBA. "Number two, she is tireless. She is absolutely relentless. She's got as much guts as anybody in the business."

Divorced, born in Washington to an immigrant father (Ioanna is a Greek version of Joanna) and having served as former economic development director for Montgomery County, Morfessis is a one-woman blizzard of organization, networking and persuasion.

Detail-oriented

Every lunch, letter and call gets logged in a fat diary. The week after her Baltimore press conference debut, she returned 400 phone calls and wrote 300 thank-you notes on red-bordered eggshell stationery.

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