Rallying outside the BDC, group calls for change

Subsidies to developers aren't helping the average citizen, critics said. But the job description for the next BDC chief signals a continuation of current policies.

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Meeting outside the Baltimore Development Corporation Saturday, speakers said the quasi-governmental agency needs new priorities.

Photo by: Fern Shen

Arguing that city development policy “is broken,” about 75 people gathered Saturday outside the Charles Center offices of the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) to call for more emphasis on working people, children and neighborhoods.

Activist Kim Trueheart told the audience they need look no further than the BDC’s mission statement to understand the core problem with the city’s development arm, which has wielded great power for years through land deals and subsidies:

“Our job is to insure that Baltimore is meeting the needs of its business community, to the greatest extent possible, every day,” the agency’s statement reads in part.

“The model is broken. It’s foul!” Trueheart said to applause.

“We need to demand that the mission statement of the BDC be changed to ‘to advocate for the workforce,’” she said, going on to cite high unemployment for the city overall and for African-American residents in particular.

“Fair Development Policies”

Trueheart’s remarks were delivered as part of a forum sponsored by Another BDC is Possible, a group loosely composed of Occupy Baltimore activists, union representatives, workers’ rights groups and advocates for more programs for youth and neighborhoods.

Organizer John Duda said Another BDC is Possible pulled together the forum in part because they are frustrated with lack of progress since a November meeting with BDC chief M.J. “Jay” Brodie.

Since then, he noted, Brodie (who had promised a continuing dialogue with the group) announced his plans to retire and BDC policy has seemingly continued unchanged, with the city proposing a PILOT subsidy for the Superblock project valued at about $35 million over 20 years.

Kim Trueheart addresses the group "Another BDC is Possible" Saturday. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Kim Trueheart addresses the group "Another BDC is Possible" on Saturday. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“We want to keep people talking about alternative development strategies, strategies that acknowledge peoples’ rights to a living wage, access to affordable health care and education,” Duda said.

The city needs “fair development policies,” he said, arguing that the benefits of subsidies to developers and corporations “never filter down to the working people of this city.”

Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, United Workers and several other groups were represented at the gathering, held in a protected area on Charles Street, during an afternoon of heavy rain.

Criteria for new BDC Chief

Several said that the departure of Brodie (BDC president and CEO since 1996, who defended the agency and its use of tax abatements at length in The Brew here) offers an opportunity for a change of direction.

Friday was the deadline for applications for his position.

In a description of the job, the BDC says the “ideal candidate” will possess “thorough knowledge and experience in urban economic development” and have a “passion” for real estate and business development.

A candidate is expected to be thoroughly versed in Baltimore’s controversial developer subsidy programs, such as PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) and TIFs (tax increment financing).

The job description does not specifically cite neighborhoods or neighborhood development as part of the agency’s mission, and instead emphasizes “facilitating new commercial development projects” to create job opportunities for city residents.

While potential candidates will be initially vetted by the agency, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Kaliope Parthemos, deputy chief for economic and neighborhood development, will make the final decision.

The mayor and her staff have so far not discussed the criteria they will use to select the new BDC chief, nor solicited feedback from the City Council or the public.

Youth Jail Spending Questioned

Many of the speakers yesterday called for the city to redirect public spending from developer subsidies to youth and neighborhood programs.

Hathaway Ferebee, executive director of the Safe and Sound Campaign, had some very specific proposals. She called on the City Council to reject Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s proposed 2013 budget until she agrees to double youth summer jobs and after-school programs for city children.

Council members need to be encouraged because they fear for their political careers if they oppose the mayor, Ferebee said: “Tell your council people ‘We have got your back.'”

Hathaway ferebee, of Safe and Sound Campaign, and Casey McKeel, Saturday. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Hathaway Ferebee, of Safe and Sound Campaign, and Casey McKeel at the rally. (Photo by Fern Shen)

One of several opponents to the proposed juvenile detention center in Baltimore, Ferebee is calling for the state to use the $80 million remaining from $100 million set aside in the capital budget for the project to be spent instead on city recreation centers, youth programs and dilapidated city schools.

“We are planning meetings with groups and rallies in each legislative district,” Ferebee said. “Make it impossible for anyone who wants to have a political career to build that jail.”

 Growing the City by Treating Workers Better

Another speaker, Michy Leiblum, of Unite Here Local 7, said the mayor could grow the city by creating “good jobs that provide a living wage.” New service industry jobs in downtown Baltimore “should be good jobs,” Leiblum said.

“Only 10 per cent of Baltimore’s full service hotels are union and the average wage for temporary workers is $8 per hour,” with full-time housekeepers making only $10.32 per hour, Leiblum said.

“Hospitality jobs don’t have to be this way,” she said.

In Philadelphia, she said, 30% of the hotels have union representation and the average pay for housekeepers in $14.50 an hour. In Washington, D.C., she added, 35% are union, “and they make on average $16 an hour, with good benefits and health care.”

Leiblum said this summer, Unite plans to rally workers and push city officials on this issue: “The companies are nasty, and the city is letting them get away with it.”

– Mark Reutter contributed to this story.

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  • Kim Trueheart

    The mission of government is to serve it’s people, NOT corporations.  The Baltimore Development Corporation’s mission statement and philosophy fails to prioritized the needs of Baltimore’s workforce over those of corporate interests … This is so wrong!  Our Mayor and Mr. Brody do not seem to understand that this flawed corporate-centric development model is being funded at taxpayer expense which is the root of our concern.  A true representative municipal development model MUST have the needs of its people first and foremost as its priority and sadly the BDC fails miserably on this point.  Advocating for the interests of Baltimore’s Worforce has to elevated as priority #1 for the BDC … nothing else makes sense.  I’m hopeful that our voices will be heard and our Mayor will restructure the BDC under a new Bold and Progressive leadership team to fulfill this long-standing void in our currently flawed economic development model. 

  • Guest

    I have no problem with the BDC’s mission to help Baltimore’s business community.  My problem with them is that they are so bad at it.  Under guidance from the BDC, the city has shrunk in population, stature, and economic clout.  IIRC, we are now by a good measure the largest city in the U.S. without a Fortune 500 company. 

    Rather than create the type of low-tax, low-hassle environment that is known to attract employers and residents, the BDC advocates extravagant and foolish spending on things like arenas and convention centers.  They have created a system of institutionalized corruption, in which local politicians select which businesses and development projects are allowed to operate in the city under terms that allow them to remain competitive.

    The real question is whether the BDC can be reformed.  I’m afraid that most of the people and businesses who best understood the nature of Baltimore’s problems have decided it would be easier to move someplace better instead of trying to fix our broken system.

  • GMan

    Always intrigued by the split message among the sides against BDC. There’s the “BDC is unfair, tax the corporations to their proper amount” side and the “BDC is unfair, everyone should have lower county-like taxes” side. Would be interesting to see, if ‘victory’ over the BDC were ever achieved, how quickly those two sides would go at it. 1% taxes for everyone don’t quite mesh with unionized labor movements. 

    • Guest

      “1% taxes for everyone don’t quite mesh with unionized labor movements.”

      Nonsense.  There are plenty of of cities with taxes around 1% and healthy labor movements.  An obvious example is DC.  Property taxes in DC are lower than 1%, and to quote from the above article:

      ‘In Washington, D.C., she added, 35% are union, “and they make on average $16 an hour, with good benefits and health care.”‘

      The whole point to cutting taxes would be to make Baltimore competitive with the surrounding areas, so we can enjoy the same sort of economic growth they have been seeing.  Once the local economy is growing, there will be a lot more demand for labor, resulting in lower unemployment and better wages and working conditions.  Unions will still have to fight for their fair share, but that’s much easier to do when the economy is strong and labor supply is relatively scarce.

      The bottom line is that everyone in this city has an interest in economic growth.  I think the BDC would like to see economic growth too, but they’re just not very good at producing it.

      • Gerald Neily

        Thank you, Guest! (The Brew has a lot of great guests.) To sum it up, economic development is economics and development. Creating the economic climate comes first. Then development can be encouraged throughout the entire city, not just in BDC’s narrow obsession zones.

  • Another Thought

    The BDC can’t sprinkle fairy dust and magically make an economic development environment.  Workers, entrepreneurs, corporate decision makers who would chose to live in the city still have to contend with property taxes, schools, crime, retail, how people treat each other, and the general “is this a nice place to live?”   The BDC is a godsend to some folks (not just politicians) b/c it’s become a giant lightening rod for criticism that could be directed elsewhere.  With 296,000 housing units in the city, the BDC’s tax relief for these high profile projects literally amounts to the cost of a sandwich per person on an annual basis.  I’m all about fairness, but I’m not blaming the BDC for my taxes being high. 

    For commentors to say the BDC is bad at what they do depends on the parameteres they’re using.  Criticism on creating living wages is totally understandable, but to say they’re bad at economic development, in the traditional sense, should only be made if one compared the city to what it would be if the BDC didn’t exist.  Your taxes would still be high!    

    • Guest

      If your argument is that the BDC can only do so much, I’d be sympathetic if I saw evidence that the BDC was pushing for sensible economic development policies (e.g. lower taxes for everyone) and getting blocked.  I see the opposite — they advocate bad ideas and usually get their way.  All businesses really want is low taxes, little hassle, and a sense that the local economy is fair.  On all three counts, the BDC has failed.

      • Another Thought

        I don’t believe the BDC can make such a recomendation as to lower the city-wide tax rate.  Recomendations for PILOT’s apply to specific City Block/Lots.  I could be wrong, but I’d be very surprised if their charter allowed them to stick their nose in City management.  In their creation, public-private authorities are given a defined role.  If that weren’t the case, the BDC would never have been allowed to be created by the powers that be. 

        The BDC doesn’t bat a thousand.  The Super Block is a failure, no other way to explain it.  There are multiple successes shared with the private sector, along with loans and assistance to small businesses. 

        Use of Project Labor Agreements (PLA’s) can be debated — if they were just about better wages I’d be 100% supportive, cross my heart, but they almost always include silly work rules and job protections that beg the joke “how many people does it take to change a light bulb?”  Maybe that cunundrum can be solved by the next BDC Director and the BDC gain confidence from folks that benefits are shared by all.    

        • Guest

          “I don’t believe the BDC can make such a recomendation as to lower the city-wide tax rate”

          Why not?  As far as I can tell they can recommend whatever they want.  I can’t find their charter online, but on their web site they write, “We are a liaison between business owners and City agencies advocating for the interests of Baltimore City employers… Our job is to insure that Baltimore is meeting the needs of its business community, to the greatest extent possible, every day.”  If they thought that it would be in the interests of Baltimore’s business community to paint every other street light yellow, they could bring that recommendation to the Mayor.

          They are so strongly associated with PILOTs, TIFs, mega-developments and urban renewal because that is how they have chosen to pursue their mission.  But they could, and should, choose another path. 

          • Another Thought

            Then advocate for the creation of a wholly separate organization, but keep the ‘economic development’ agency intact.  The BDC is a liaison between business owners and City and not residents and the City.  That’s what economic development agencies from NY to CA do.   You may wish it, but the BDC really was not created, nor is able, to be a better government and tax payer advocacy panel with a super hero cape hanging from its back.

          • Guest

            What on earth are you talking about?  The BDC requests tax breaks all the time.  Requesting an across the board tax break instead of a project-specific tax break requires neither a “super-hero cape” nor “fairy dust.”  Nor does it require the creation of an entirely new agency. 

            If your point is that the BDC should only advocate for tax breaks for businesses and not for residents, I think you severely underestimate how badly Baltimore’s loss of residents has hurt local businesses.  You can’t just pretend there is a “resident economy” and “business economy” and we should have separate agencies to deal with each.  There is only one economy.  If the best economic development policy would be a widespread tax cut for either residents or businesses, it is the BDC’s job to recommend it.

            If the BDC thinks its role is just to arrange for TIFs, PILOTs, and mega-projects, we need to replace it with a real economic development agency that understands all the nuances of the economy.  Maybe that has been the problem all along.

          • Another Thought

            Dear Guest, I try to be civil without blatently belittling the other side.  Take my word for it, I understand the effect of Baltimore’s population loss, but that is just one more layer that’s been added to this discussion.  I just wanted to make a correction on the assumption that BDC can or would ever advise on what is essentially the fiscal management of the City that, as I’m sure you know, affects funding for schools, roads, public safety, sanitary, etc.  I was trying to be technical in layman’s terms while message boards are meant for simplicity, absolutism and one upmanship on however many or few words the other person has the time to write.    

          • Gerald Neily

            Another Thought: This is not an ordinary message board. This is THE BREW, which is NOT dedicated to “simplicity, absolutism and one upmanship…”, but should be essential reading for everyone who’s anyone.

          • Guest

            Another Thought, I agree with your call for civility.  My incredulity at your comments stemmed from your implications, in two separate posts, that people who disagree with you believe in “fairy dust” and “super-heroes”.  You are right in that there is nothing to be gained by belittling the other side.

            The BDC advises on issues of fiscal management all the time.  Every time the BDC requests a tax break, or funding for a project, they are advising on fiscal issues.  If the BDC can request creation of an enterprise zone, why couldn’t they request something similar for the entire city? 

            There is only one economic development agency in this city, and we only need one.  But that agency needs to take responsibility for economic development and advocate fiercely on its behalf.  Not all of their proposals will be accepted, but at least they could say they’d tried.  And then they should try again.  At it stands now, the BDC’s abdication of responsibility for the sorry state of Baltimore’s economy is very hard to swallow, given that for the most part the city has been following their advice.

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