Baltimore Development Corp. still in flux after months with new leader

Brenda McKenzie has yet to make her mark on the agency

  • Brenda McKenzie is the president and CEO of Baltimore Development Corporation.
Brenda McKenzie is the president and CEO of Baltimore Development… (Erin Kirkland, Baltimore…)
March 31, 2014|By Natalie Sherman, The Baltimore Sun

When the new head of the Baltimore Development Corp. started 15 months ago, she replaced a man who'd become synonymous with development in the city and accepted the task of changing the agency's focus from real estate deals to economic strategy.

Much of Brenda McKenzie's first year, however, has been consumed by projects she inherited, such as winning approval of controversial tax-increment financing for infrastructure at Harbor Point.

Many observers said McKenzie, who came to Baltimore from a similar job in Boston, has yet to place her stamp on the agency, one of the most complex and controversial in the city and one not used to change after 16 years under the leadership of M.J. "Jay" Brodie.

"Taking an organization over like the BDC is a gigantic task," said District 7 City Councilman Nick Mosby . "It's really hard to judge someone in that type of a position a year out."

"There were a couple of major things sitting on the table when Ms. McKenzie came in," said District 12 Councilman Carl Stokes, pointing to Harbor Point, the Remington Walmart and the new ShopRite in Howard Park. "She and the staff had to clear those from their agenda, from the table so to speak, and so we don't know quite yet what the next emphasis might be."

The problem she faces is persuading a skeptical public that the BDC has changed, even while many remain unclear about the city's broader vision for economic development.

"I don't know how to characterize their operation," said Ronald Kreitner, executive director of Westside Renaissance, a nonprofit affiliated with lawyer Peter Angelos, who owns the Orioles and numerous properties in the city. "It appears almost that it's still in a holding pattern. There's just not a lot to say."

McKenzie, 46, described her time so far as a "year of transition." She said she has worked to push forward the projects she inherited, as well as become more responsive to the needs of a broader range of businesses and the public. For example, after Santoni's Supermarket closed in the fall, the BDC organized a meeting with grocers in the city to discuss their concerns.

In June, the BDC is expected to present a new economic strategy to the city, a document that a consultant has been assembling since last fall. The process involved community meetings, an online survey that drew more than 1,000 responses and in-person interviews with about 200 stakeholders.

"In the last year, we've been talking about what we do and how we do it," McKenzie said. "I see the BDC as encouraging and facilitating investment in the city, whether it be businesses that are looking to grow, developers who are looking to build or individuals who are looking to live and have their family here."

McKenzie, who talks about "leveraging" and, like Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, speaks of a "holistic" development approach, said she hopes to build stronger partnerships between the BDC and other Baltimore institutions, such as banks and universities. She also wants the BDC to introduce new tools to help small businesses, attract jobs that provide opportunities to people with different education levels, and approach development with more of an eye toward neighborhoods.

"The mayor's charge was that she wanted to start fresh and she wanted to have a very open and inclusive process moving forward," said McKenzie, who moved to a home in the Woodberry-Hampden area last June. "This is a marathon, it's certainly not a sprint."

The Rawlings-Blake administration said it already has taken steps toward reorienting economic development to small business. Last year, the mayor launched a BDC-administered microloan program targeted at small businesses.

This month, Rawlings-Blake announced the creation of the Minority Business Development Agency at the Johns Hopkins University, funded by a three-year, $900,000 federal grant that will be overseen by her office. She said she has provided support to the Main Streets groups focused on the city's commercial corridors, as well as to accelerators designed to foster start-ups.

Rawlings-Blake said she has confidence in McKenzie's ability to achieve the mayor's goals for the city.

"I've tried to be clear about my vision for economic development in the city — that it's more inclusive," Rawlings-Blake said. "This is about having a vibrant and vital city and making sure that economic development supports all of that, supports our growth sectors, connects people with jobs and continues to fight for opportunities. You can see that all over the city. Whether or not it's artfully articulated, the vision is being actualized every single day."

Jason Hardebeck, a partner with the health information technology accelerator DreamIt Ventures, said the technology community "relatively recently" has been included in the economic development conversation. That's a sign, he said, that the city's concept of development has started to expand beyond tax breaks and real estate to infrastructure and quality of life questions.

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