Official to push development

Lawyer hired to help businesses navigate city bureaucracies

March 10, 2001|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Despite a looming budget deficit, Mayor Martin O'Malley has found an extra $75,000 a year to invest in the city's future.

The investment is named J. Kirby Fowler Jr., who left a six-figure salary as a partner in Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver, one of Baltimore's largest and most prestigious law firms, to take a position in the O'Malley administration.

His title is "special assistant, economic and neighborhood development."

It might as well be "red tape cutter."

Fowler will wear many hats as an assistant to Laurie Schwartz, the city's deputy mayor for economic development. But one of his key roles will be as an ombudsman for developers trying to build projects in the city.

"For the city to promote economic development, we need to be an easy place to do business," Schwartz said.

Developers, who often wait months or even years to obtain the proper permits and bureaucratic approvals for projects, welcomed the move.

"It sounds like they're at least admitting they've got a problem," said David Hillman, chairman of Southern Management Co., in Tysons Corner, Va., which is renovating seven downtown Baltimore buildings. "Because the bureaucracy and the politicians are often at cross-purposes."

O'Malley announced Fowler's hiring in a recent newsletter to city business leaders, in which he said his year-old administration had not met its goal of streamlining bureaucracy.

"It makes no sense for a city that suffers from perpetual budget shortfalls to accept roadblocks to investment," O'Malley wrote, promising to "untangle the alphabet soup of bureaucracy" in the coming year.

Fowler, 34, is a New Jersey native who had worked at Ober, Kaler, trying civil cases, since 1994. During nine years in Baltimore, he has also volunteered at the South Baltimore Homeless Shelter and other community organizations.

"I started to enjoy those things more than I loved litigation," he said.

When he read about Schwartz's efforts to attract and retain businesses and improve the quality of life in neighborhoods, he dropped her a resume. He started his new job on Jan. 16. In addition to working with developers, and acting as a liaison between developers and city agencies, Fowler meets regularly with neighborhood groups.

A proposal to extend Key Highway east to Locust Point -- where developers are building a high-tech office complex -- has upset residents concerned about traffic. So he's lending an ear to the Locust Point Community Organization as well as to the complex's developers.

"If you have strong neighborhoods, the jobs will follow," Fowler said.

Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, an organization of business leaders, said Baltimore is a complicated place for developers. Because there's almost no undeveloped land, most projects entail demolishing or overhauling existing buildings. That requires de- velopers to gain approvals from multiple agencies.

"The agencies frequently don't talk to each other," he said. "So the process becomes complicated."

And the GBC, which is reviewing Baltimore's permit process, "found there wasn't one person who could tell us all the steps a project needed to go through. ... A guy like Kirby just might be able to figure it out."

In a recent interview, O'Malley said economic development is "really the solution to our fiscal problems."

"It's not a cherry on top of the sundae," O'Malley said. "It's a foundational, fundamental thing if we're going to break out of the downward spiral of cutting and cutting and cutting."

And, he said, economic development projects need to happen faster.

"We're working on making the city a growing, vibrant place. And this administration definitely sees itself as a catalyst to economic development," O'Malley said. "But these economic development deals aren't quite so simple."

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