He's upbeat on downtown

Fowler: The next president of Downtown Partnership wants every block of the area to be filled with `vibrancy.'

April 17, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

J. Kirby Fowler Jr., an attorney at Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll LLP, has been named the new president of Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, effective this summer.

Fowler, 38, will assume his post July 1, when the current president, Michele L. Whelley, steps down to start a business consulting practice. He is expected to start work at the organization about June 1, to allow for overlap with Whelley before he takes over.

"Thirteen years ago, I moved here from Manhattan and fell in love with the city," Fowler said yesterday. "The changes that happen before your eyes are amazing. I've been a part of it to a limited extent. I want to be more a part of it."

Downtown Partnership officials approached him about four weeks ago to gauge his interest in the position, he said.

"I didn't have to think about it for a second," he said. "I knew it was something I'd want to do - no hesitation."

For the past two years, Fowler has been "of counsel" to Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, where he has represented clients in litigation and nonlitigation matters involving land use, zoning, permitting, economic development, employment law, administrative law and contracts.

But Fowler also has public-sector experience.

In 2001, Fowler 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 Martin O'Malley's administration for $75,000 a year. There, with the title of special assistant for economic and neighborhood development, Fowler helped advance development projects through city agencies by streamlining the process and coordinating large projects.

During his time in the mayor's office, Fowler is credited with helping to expedite development approvals for the Brown Center at the Maryland Institute College of Art, working with community groups and developers to spark the renaissance of Belvedere Square, and ensuring completion of renovations to Hopkins Plaza, Harbor Point and Fells Point.

Fowler said he again will take a pay reduction moving from his law firm to his new position, but not as substantial a cut as when he joined the mayor's office.

"He's bright and energetic and engaging as a person," said James L. Shea, chairman of the Downtown Partnership board and managing partner at law firm Venable LLP. "Kirby has a tremendous capacity to get things done. He's someone who knows the business community, understands collaboration with other business organizations and has the public-sector respect and experience that we need."

Shea declined to provide the salaries of Whelley or Fowler.

Among Fowler's goals for the Downtown Partnership are drawing more retailers to the city and increasing the level of energy downtown with such attractions as art, music and parks.

"I hate walking downtown and hitting a dead block where there's no life," he said. "I'd like from one end of downtown to the other for there to be vibrancy. You shouldn't have to walk through any block and be fearful or be bored. There are certain blocks still where I don't think people would be very interested to walk down."

Fowler said he thinks that the role of the Downtown Partnership is the most concrete of the region's three oft-confused business organizations. The Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore works to attract and retain business in Greater Baltimore, while the Greater Baltimore Committee focuses on regional policy and infrastructure issues and business climate. The Downtown Partnership's role is to work with business and government to make downtown a good place to live, work and play.

Despite the partnership's success to date, there is more to achieve, he noted.

"The job is not over," Fowler said. "There is a lot of streetscaping that needs to be done. None of the other organizations focus on downtown, and if no one is focusing on downtown, that could hurt the city overall."

Fowler views the Downtown Partnership's greatest challenge as retaining businesses. "There's a desire to go elsewhere," he said. "I understand the allure of the suburbs to corporations. We have to make them understand they are appreciated, make it easier for them to be downtown and to make them understand the benefits of being downtown. I'm very serious about all the advantages that come from happenstance meetings on the street - the deals that can be struck."

Fowler and his wife, Carmina Perez-Fowler, live in Cedarcroft with their daughter, Victoria, who turns 3 today.

"One thing I realized the other day is I'll never have another casual stroll downtown again," Fowler said yesterday. "I'll be looking at the streets."

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