With new leader, opportunity to change for Baltimore Development Corp.

Brenda McKenzie took over in December after 16 years under one leader

January 05, 2013|By Steve Kilar, The Baltimore Sun

Until last month, M.J. "Jay" Brodie was the only person to hold the title of president of the Baltimore Development Corp. since it was organized in the mid-1990s into its current form, with a largely private-sector board of directors.

What the city's nonprofit, economic development agency became during his time at the helm allowed for some of Baltimore's most admired economic progress in recent years, including the construction of Harbor East and the public offering of stock by Millennial Media Inc., the mobile advertising company that got its legs with help from a technology incubator founded during Brodie's tenure.

Now that Brenda McKenzie, a economic development officer coming from Boston, has taken on the title of president and CEO, she faces the same questions Brodie confronted 17 years ago: What should the BDC's priorities be and what are the best ways to achieve them?

"There's now a moment for the new leadership to step back and take a good, long look at the BDC — how it's structured and whether that fits with the 21st-century urban economic development challenge," said Mark Wasserman, a University of Maryland Medical System development official.

Excitement and curiosity about McKenzie's plans for the powerful organization are buzzing. And there's no shortage of suggestions about how the BDC, criticized in recent years for being opaque, losing its focus on job creation and aiming too many resources at downtown development, should be shaped to help the city compete.

"There's a heavy burden on her because all of us are expecting great things," said Gilberto de Jesus, a member of the BDC's board of directors. "But I think she's going to be able to deliver."

He has been impressed with McKenzie's initiative so far, he said. Soon after starting the job in mid-December, she reached out to him to gather ideas for enticing Hispanic businesses to relocate to Baltimore, said de Jesus, a leader of the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

McKenzie said she has been meeting with "stakeholders" from throughout Baltimore, gathering ideas and identifying needs for the organization.

She's taking her time to develop a plan for the organization, she said, and is going to take into account the input she receives on her listening tour when deciding what changes to make at the agency and how to fill vacancies. So far, everyone she's spoken with has offered to further collaborate with the agency, she said.

While the city was interviewing candidates for Brodie's replacement, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she wanted the BDC's new leader to expand the agency's focus on small businesses and strategize with anchor institutions, like the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins.

The mayor, McKenzie said, "is giving the organization time to assess" the economic needs of the city.

It might take a while. The BDC, a $9 million operation last year with a staff of about 40, does a lot — including commercial revitalization, business incubation, managing Baltimore's foreign trade zone and operating a small-business resource center. And everyone, it seems, has an opinion on what the BDC should be doing to make the city a more business-friendly — and livable — place.

"A typical economic development agency should focus on creating jobs," said David Hillman, founder and CEO of Southern Management Corp., a major developer of residential properties in Baltimore. "They've been doing it backward."

The BDC negotiates the sale of city-owned land and frequently negotiates tax breaks to encourage the redevelopment of underused property, with the expectation that jobs will follow. That's the wrong approach, Hillman said.

The BDC should allow the market to dictate which projects fly, Hillman said, and should not be in the business of financing projects through tax breaks.

"It's not right that they should put public money at risk, often with inexperienced developers," he said.

One of the BDC's most ardent critics, the watchdog group Another BDC is Possible, agrees that the process of negotiating tax breaks for developments should be reconsidered. More "imaginative" enticements should be thought up, said John Duda, an organizer for the group.

The group is primed to provide McKenzie with ideas for making the BDC more transparent and inclusive, he said. Among the other suggestions: Engage with neighborhood organizations and hold "neighborhood revitalization" forums to gather ideas and improve public access to meaningful metrics about BDC projects.

During years of planning for a grocery store in the Howard Park neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore, the BDC "excluded the community," said Kim Trueheart, an activist involved in both the Howard Park Civic Association and Another BDC is Possible.

That put the community at a disadvantage, she said. Without a seat at the table early on, the community could not insist on contract requirements for local hiring, for instance, Trueheart said.

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