Minority office is applauded and criticized

Many entrepreneurs like Tonkins' start

After a year on the job

Some say he needs input in awarding of contracts

May 19, 2002|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Ronald Curry had trouble persuading city agencies to buy toner cartridges from his computer company even though he had a contract with Baltimore to sell them.

But after some pushing and prodding by Owen Tonkins, the head of Baltimore's year-old minority business office, Curry's Neo Technologies Inc. has seen a 20 percent increase in sales to city departments.

"We always had the contract, but agencies weren't encouraged to use it," Curry said. "Once Owen and his team got on board, they became our advocates."

Tonkins, charged with increasing business opportunities for minorities in Baltimore, points to businesses such as Neo Technologies in measuring the success of his first year.

And many minority entrepreneurs said the office has helped create a friendlier business environment, giving companies a central place to go for information. Large companies said Tonkins' office has helped them find minority subcontractors.

But not everyone is pleased with the pace of progress in year one.

Some complain that the mission of the office isn't clear, while others wonder who Tonkins and his staff of two have helped. Others say Tonkins' office doesn't have the teeth to make substantive changes. They say he can let people know about deals but has little influence on who wins contracts.

"I don't think he's given the authority he needs to do his job," said Robert Clay, president of the Maryland Minority Business Association. "He's been road-blocked by people in the city agencies."

But even those skeptical of the new initiative are careful not to judge Tonkins' first year too harshly.

"He's had so much on his plate," said Lisa Harris Jones, a local attorney who represents minority businesses. "There's so much work to be done. It's hard to be critical of an office when you have to undo 20 years of work."

Mayor Martin O'Malley created the minority office and hired Tonkins - then a Paterson, N.J., city official - for the $90,000-a-year post in response to pressure from influential black politicians to level the playing field for minority companies. Minorities make up 69 percent of the city's population, but own few businesses. O'Malley said the office was able to lay the foundation to create more opportunities for minority businesses.

"I think the most important thing we've done in the first year is put together a system to do greater things in the next year," he said.

"In the past, everyone had good intentions for minority business development, but unless you watch it, unless you track it, unless you make it a priority, it doesn't happen."

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, headed a panel that was instrumental in persuading the mayor to create the minority business office. Rawlings hasn't been monitoring the office closely but said he would hear if there were problems. He said he'd expect to see more changes in Tonkins' second year.

"Any progress of this office would have to be viewed in the context of 12 to 15 years of lack of focus on minority businesses in the city," Rawlings said. "It's like expecting that the Baltimore City schools should change overnight. The proof of the pudding will be after his first year."

Tonkins is charged with making good on O'Malley's pledge to include minority businesses in the revitalization of downtown's west side and in the city's effort to create a "digital harbor" - a high-tech hub in the city.

He also heads O'Malley's efforts to increase the total of city contracts awarded to minority- and women-owned firms to 35 percent from the 14 percent in 2000 when the city began using new recording techniques.

So far, no minority businesses have opened on the west side, though Tonkins said there are some viable candidates. Minority contracts increased to 21 percent, or $68 million last year - a substantial gain but still shy of the mayor's goal. And the dot-com bust has doused dreams of drastic growth of technology companies. No new minority businesses have opened at the digital harbor.

"Because of the downturn in the economy, I've been focusing on maintaining the status quo and keeping viable the businesses that we have," Tonkins said about the digital harbor.

Tonkins said that he knew his job wouldn't be easy and that his first year went as well as he expected.

"We came in on a highly politically charged issue and were able to get a lot of assistance for minority companies," he said. "It's a process. It's an evolution that takes time. It's not going to happen in one or even two years."

Minority business owners say they want the mayor's initiative to work but privately wonder what the office has done and whom it has benefited.

O'Malley said word will get out as the initiative grows.

Tonkins said that just because the office doesn't make splashy headlines, doesn't mean progress hasn't been made.

Much of the past 12 months, he said, was spent laying the groundwork for changing a business culture in Baltimore that has left minority- and women-owned companies at a disadvantage.

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