Time for consolidation?

October 11, 2002

THE ECONOMY was in the midst of a seemingly never-ending go-go frenzy in 1997, when the Greater Baltimore Alliance decided to spin off from the Greater Baltimore Committee. Today, corporate and grant money -- as well as executives' time -- is scarce, and the question must be asked whether this region is best served by two separate civic organizations with partially overlapping boards, memberships and missions.

For about a year, a nucleus of GBC and GBA leaders has been in quiet discussion about a possible realignment. With GBC President Donald P. Hutchinson now departing to the world of banking, this is the ideal time for frank, public conversation on whether consolidation of the two groups would be prudent.

Ostensibly, each group has a different mission. The GBC works with myriad policy issues to strengthen the business climate. The GBA views itself as the regional economic development corporation, recruiting new businesses, retaining old ones.

In reality, the missions are not dissimilar. Economic promotion may not be the GBC's main function, but that is much of what it does.

The same is true of several other groups. The City Hall-controlled Baltimore Development Corp. coordinates private investment projects. And even though Downtown Partnership is mainly a service and maintenance organization, it has promotion functions as well. So does the Presidents' Roundtable, a group of black executives.

It is not altogether evident that this alphabet soup of civic boosterism is the most efficient or rational means of getting the message across. Costly duplication certainly has resulted in confusion and resentment among corporations that are asked for multiple contributions.

Things used to be simpler.

When the GBC was created in 1955, it became the only game in town by swallowing the larger Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce, the GBA of its day. The GBC was not only largely responsible for Charles Center and the Inner Harbor but also played a hand in the formation of the Maryland Port Administration, the rebuilding of the Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the construction of the Metro.

Under Mr. Hutchinson, a former state senator and Baltimore County executive, the GBC in the past nine years became heavily involved in quality-of-life issues. Recognizing the city's importance as a catalyst for business growth, the group spearheaded efforts to increase drug treatment, combat homicides, strengthen theaters and improve education.

With the resignation of Mr. Hutchinson after a job well done, the GBC and GBA boards, along with those of Baltimore's other civic organizations, should seize the moment and engage in frank stock-taking about the future.

That rethinking ought to take place before the GBC chooses a new president.

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