Mayoral candidates seek to reverse long slide in city jobs

Candidates offer plans to revamp economic development strategy

August 18, 2011|By Julie Scharper and Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Charleta Jones isn't looking for just one job. She's looking for two: something full time and something on the side, to help repair the financial damage she suffered after losing her job last year as a paratransit driver.

"I've been out of work for over a year, so I have to catch up on everything," the 39-year-old Reservoir Hill woman said last week.

Jones has a range of experiences on which to draw, including security, housekeeping and fast food, and she's landing interviews. Still, she said, the job market is decidedly rough. "It's more of a struggle, period."

The number of people working in Baltimore has dropped for the past two decades, as manufacturing plants have shut their doors and other businesses have left for surrounding counties. And while new shops and offices have opened in the neighborhoods around the Inner Harbor, residents of outlying communities say their neighborhoods are stagnating or worse.

As Baltimore's mayoral candidates present their economic development credentials and plans, economists warn that Baltimore stands at a crossroads: The city must draw new businesses and boost job opportunities or face continued population loss, declining property values and more crime.

"In many ways, the city is its worst enemy," said Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive officer of the Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore economic consulting firm. "As Towson and Columbia become more dense, they become much more relevant as urban competitors to Baltimore City. So the clock is ticking. The city needs to get this right soon."

Since Stephanie Rawlings-Blake became mayor in February 2010, she has pushed for large — and often controversial — projects. Her economic development team has focused in recent months on the Baltimore Grand Prix and the planned slots casino, while pushing for progress on West Baltimore's Superblock and State Center developments.

"One of the reasons I support major events is to create jobs," she said. "We have to focus on the city's areas of strength — health care, biotech, life sciences."

Rawlings-Blake says that she is streamlining government agencies to make "doing business with the city predictable" and supporting school programs that prepare young people to work in fields that are growing.

But Rawlings-Blake's challengers in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary, who include former city planning director Otis Rolley, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, former Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors Vice President Joseph T. "Jody" Landers and Clerk of Court Frank M. Conaway Sr., say the city needs to forge a new path.

Rolley says he has a five-pronged plan to increase business that includes teaming up with universities and hospitals to nurture small businesses and overhauling the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public economic development arm.

"Instead of just having the BDC working as a real estate company, chasing after one development after the next, they should be really serving entrepreneurs and small businesses," said Rolley, who was planning director under Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Rolley said he would push the BDC to publish statistics about its projects. "The BDC is giving out loans and grants without checks and balances or real analysis," he said. "It's almost like the honor system, except there is no honor — look at our unemployment rate."

Rolley — who holds a master's degree in urban planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and who worked for the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance — says he also would revamp the city's bus line to make it easier to for city residents to get to work.

Pugh, too, says she would revamp the BDC. She says she would evenly distribute tax credits around the city — not just to large downtown projects.

"We need to balance what we do downtown with what we do uptown," said Pugh, who represents West Baltimore in the state Senate. "If we need [tax incentives] to get light manufacturing in Baltimore, that's what we do. If we need [tax incentives] to get supermarkets in our neighborhoods, that's what we do."

Pugh says she would force the city to sign more contracts with local businesses. And she would work with small businesses to help them meet the needs of the city's large hospitals and universities.

"I'd sit down with the corporate community and begin to see what their needs are," she said. "How many hospital gowns do they use? How can we met their needs here in our city?"

Landers believes that lowering the city's property tax rate for homes and businesses, while raising taxes on vacant buildings, would spur growth. And he says he would create jobs by starting a public works initiative — paid for with bonds — to clean up city streets.

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