Owen Tonkins barely had time to organize his new desk before the questions started coming from minority business owners throughout Baltimore.
How do I compete for city contracts? Where can I get money to expand?
"That says we have an awful lot of potential here," Tonkins said of the inquiries. "It's an excellent opportunity to take these assets and build on them."
As Baltimore's new director of minority business development -a $90,000 Cabinet post - Tonkins is charged with creating new opportunities for minorities in a city where they make up 69 percent of residents but are barely visible in the city's major business corridors.
He'll play a crucial role in an increasingly politically charged issue as Mayor Martin O'Malley and several prominent black legislators lead an effort to reverse what they say is a business climate that has long bypassed minorities
Last year, the amount of business done by Baltimore City with minority companies compared with all businesses dropped to 13 percent after a judge ordered the city to revamp its program. In 1999, it was 21 percent.
"In cities that are vibrant and have a significant African-American population, such as Atlanta, you have a substantial black business culture," said Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat. "You don't have that in Baltimore."
Tonkins, 46, has held similar positions in New Jersey and has a seat on the board of the city's development arm, the Baltimore Development Corp.
He will oversee O'Malley's plan to include minority businesses in some of the city's development projects. The projects would include the west-side revitalization project and the effort to create a "digital harbor" - a high-tech hub in the city.
The state has designated $50 million over five years toward the two developments, but only after pressure from black Baltimore legislators, including Rawlings - the House Appropriations Committee chairman - that minorities play a part.
O'Malley's plan calls for attracting five "significant" minority-owned retail stores and a restaurant in the west-side development and two minority-owned technology companies in the "digital harbor."
There are no parameters for the size or revenues of these establishments, but the aim is to go beyond mom-and-pop stores.
O'Malley's goals are to increase the total of city contracts that go to minority and women-owned firms from 23 percent to 35 percent.
Tonkins is responsible for administering all the new changes.
"Owen is very critical. He is the linchpin," O'Malley said. "He is the guy who will set up the system and tell us whether we're close and how far we need to go."
It's a job that almost no one expects will be simple.
"The progress is not going to happen overnight," said Rawlings, who helped craft the mayor's goals. "But it's important for the revival of the city and its future."
Many will be watching closely, particularly black business leaders, who are pleased by the initiative but also skeptical.
"We're very happy with the idea, and we're sort of waiting with baited breath to see if it works," said B. Terry "Tyrous" Addison, owner of Atlas Insurance Agency and a founding member of the President's Roundtable, a group of Baltimore black business executives.
Tonkins must meet O'Malley's minority-business goals during a time when many technology companies have gone under or downsized. In addition, competition among cities for successful technology companies is fierce.
The city has struggled to attract stores downtown and to once-vibrant retail areas such as the Old Town Mall in East Baltimore. Minority participation programs are being scrutinized more than ever, and minority businesses are at a disadvantage when obtaining capital, business experts say.
"I didn't come here expecting things to be easy," Tonkins said. "As long as the mayor is out there saying we need to do more to be more inclusive, I can do my job. You'll always have people who want to do business the old way."
Tonkins has spent the weeks since he started work April 9 building relationships with business groups.
"It's important to meet people at the top, so we can talk about creating more diversity in business opportunities," he said. "My plan is evolving. It's going to take me some time to understand the organization and ideas of the city."
Although he spent the last three years as director of human resources for Paterson, N.J., a job that paid $61,390, Tonkins has nearly a decade of experience as an economic development official. As the former proprietor of a small printing company, he also has had first-hand experience with the advantages of owning a business as well as the effort and risk it entails.
Growing up in Paterson, Tonkins heard constant messages from his parents about the benefits of small-business ownership. Though his seamstress mother and chef father were by no means wealthy, they owned their home. During the summer they took their only child to North Carolina, where Tonkins helped out at his grandparents' general store.