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City hires strategic consulting firm that recycled its own ideas

The Texas-based consultant reimbursed Lexington, KY, $75,000 for a draft report lifted from its other clients' studies

Draft strategic report Lex Ky

Highlighted in yellow, a sample page of “recycled recommendations” found in a Kentucky report prepared by AngelouEconomics.

Photo by: ProgressLex.com

The consulting group hired by Baltimore to produce an economic development strategic plan admitted two years ago that it had copied and pasted large portions of a report from other studies.

AngelouEconomics – set to be paid up to $167,500 by the Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC) – reimbursed $75,000 to Lexington, KY, after a citizen’s group exposed its “recycled recommendations” lifted from reports for places in Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa, among others.

For example, the Texas-based consultant found that Lexington’s “first and most important” problem was also the same problem it had identified for the Pikes Peak region of Colorado – namely, that the region “must break down longstanding silos and work collaboratively towards a common economic vision,” both reports said.

Other passages poached from the consultant’s other studies, according to ProgressLex, included these goals and action items:

• “Create strong sector support platforms and focus sector-specific efforts on strategic areas of opportunity.”

• “Capitalize on the workforce to create a ‘best in class’ workforce.”

• “Encourage entrepreneurship from a young age through regional K-12 programs.”

• “Launch a young professional marketing strategy” with “a guerrilla marketing campaign that includes message board strategies and pop-culture PR, word of mouth and U-Tube strategies.”

ProgressLex highlighted the copied material in yellow marker in this on-line report.

Culprit was “Politics”

In a phone interview, the company’s founder and CEO, Angelos Angelou, said, “Yes, we copied our own work and used it,” but defended such borrowing as different from copying from other people’s work.

“We were accused of plagiarism, which was very unfair.” He placed the lion’s share of the blame on political infighting between the mayor and economic development chief. “We were caught in an unusual situation where I had to concede some error.”

The borrowed information, he said, created a “perception problem” that was corrected in the final report – which was rewritten at the demand of Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. The final report fully satisfied the mayor, Angelou said.

Defending the draft report he apologized for two years ago, Angelou said it should be no surprise that his company used the same statistics cited in other reports because they were all national statistics for the same year.

But Ben Self, who wrote the expose for ProgressLex, found a different situation – passages lifted in the draft report “so horrible that they forgot to delete the spaces before the text when they replaced the previous city’s name with ‘Bluegrass region’ for our report.”

Fresh Deliverables

Angelou said Baltimore will be getting fresh and original “deliverables” on how to better leverage its assets and create new jobs when the report is completed in March, along with stacks of useful statistics.

He said he has already made two trips to Baltimore and has talked to 50-75 “stakeholders” in focus groups involving local businesses, government and non-profits. The report will concentrate on such growth areas as bioscience, emerging tech companies and the port, he said.

In addition, the firm has helped establish a website, Baltimore2020.com/survey, calling on residents to fill out an online survey to become “an active voice in Baltimore’s future economic development.”

But the website warns: “To be counted, responses must be received by 12:00 midnight, Dec. 20th, 2013. If time does not permit you to complete the survey in full, please be sure to click ‘done’ at the end of the survey. This will ensure that your voice, at least in part, can be heard.”

Top Priority of the Mayor

Since her 2011 election campaign, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has made developing a process to attract new businesses to Baltimore a top priority. That became the mission of Brenda McKenzie, appointed president of the BDC a year ago, replacing retiring M.J. “Jay” Brodie.

In announcing the strategic planning process last week, Rawlings-Blake said that AngelouEconomics will lead the BDC’s effort to craft “a clear road map for our city.” Also participating in the process will be the Department of Planning and two business groups – the Greater Baltimore Committee and Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore.

Angelos Angelou and his wife. Esther, who jointly founded the Austin-based consulting firm.

Angelos Angelou and his wife, Esther, who jointly founded the Austin-based consulting firm. (angeloueconomics.com)

The Angelou firm was selected from 15 advisory groups that responded to a Request for Proposals from the BDC last spring to help develop the strategic plan.

Its $167,500 contract was not handled through the city’s normal bidding process and approved by the Board of Estimates because the BDC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit established to provide economic development services to the City of Baltimore.

As a result, the BDC can hire consultants through its yearly appropriation of city funds and does not have to adhere to bidding requirements – or open its records to the public or media, according to BDC staff.

BDC Won’t Release Proposal

The agency has declined to let The Brew review the proposal submitted by AngelouEconomics, saying the material contains “proprietary information” and the BDC had signed a confidentiality agreement with the consultant.

The Brew then emailed a series of questions about the bid, which the agency did not answer, including whether AngelouEconomics was the low bidder and the names and bid prices of the 14 other submitters.

Repeated attempts to interview McKenzie about the contract were also unsuccessful.

When McKenzie was recruited to head the BDC last year from Boston’s redevelopment authority, she promised to listen and learn from the community.

“My main priority at this point is to be open . . . transparent and collaborative,” she said at a news conference alongside Rawlings-Blake and deputy chief of development, Kaliope Parthemos.

Yesterday, in response to a freedom-of-information request by The Brew under the Maryland Public Information Act, the BDC’s chief operating officer, Nancy Jordan-Howard, wrote in an email: “We are processing your MPIA request according to guidelines and will respond within the 30-day window as required.”

“Relentless Experts”

Angelou – who readily talked to The Brew about his consulting firm – said he founded the company 19 years ago after serving as vice president of economic development for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. On its website, the consulting firm boasts that Angelou is “widely regarded as the chief architect in the establishment of Austin as a high-tech center.”

The company refers to itself as “relentless experts” who “combine continuous innovation, candid advisement and unbounded creativity to deliver measurable and intangible value for our clients.” In addition to strategic analysis, it specializes in SWOT (“Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats”) matrices, site location advisement and business-case analysis.

Angelou said his group has never before consulted in Baltimore or worked for a government unit in Maryland.

Small Town Clients

While it has done economic assessments for several large cities, including Detroit and Cincinnati, the group mostly contracts its services out to smaller government units in Texas and the Midwest.

Its current client list includes the Andrews, TX, Economic Development Corp.; Cameron, TX, Industrial Foundation; Kossuth/Palo Alto County in Iowa; and Pottawatomie County Economic Development Corp. in Kansas.

The firm has also reached out internationally, Angelou said, conducting economic impact studies, strategies and “visions” for Greece, the Czech Republic, Parana, Brazil, and the Republic of Malta.

The group also boasts a non-accredited college – dubbed AE University – that provides economic development tools for a $1,499 annual membership fee and offers client consulting at $250 an hour.

“At AngelouEconomics,” says its website, “we’re pioneers in economic development. Constantly creating innovative tools for analysis, evaluation, and strategic development. You can count on us to always have the most complete arsenal of assets to help you achieve success.”

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  • davethesuave

    when you’re surrounded by sheep, might as well break out the scissors and Let The Fleecing Begin. (Anyone getting tired of the SRB administration yet? Or are you simply thrilled with their results to date?).

    • Smiley

      Every time I start to think I might be tired of Stephanie, I just close my eyes and picture her warm smile and bask in the glow of her caring, compassionate way of being. Ahh, all better…

      • davethesuave

        why did I not see that? i stand corrected. she’s swell.

  • Rocky_Ground

    “U-Tube”? these guys are not exactly up to date…

    • James Hunt

      Spirit-crushing foolishness, to borrow a phrase from blogger Mickey Kaus. All that’s missing is Dilbert’s “pointy-haired boss.”

  • green lisa

    My sector support strategy emerged from under my silo as a “best in class’ innovative arsenal!

    • Rocky_Ground

      That strategy is sure to leverage robust results, as they say…..

      • SteveK

        As long as she can effectively and robustly actuate the BHAG’s through a virtual platform. (Say, aren’t those the flying monkeys who bothered Dorothy and her colleagues?)

    • River Mud

      Here’s to engaging stakeholders across the triple bottom line!

  • asteroid_B612

    So we’re going to be paying $167k for platitudes and inane business-speak (and recycled ones at that) — how.depressing. It would be cheaper to pay BDC staff to plagiarize the report and throw in a few Digital Harbor and Biotech Kingdom references.

    And the new “transparency” under the current BDC head looks suspiciously like the secret society/shadow government of the old BDC.

    • River Mud

      sounds like an optimized win-win for diverse stakeholders!

  • Theonliest

    “I’m not going to hire a consultant to tell me how to run the business. That’s my job. If I don’t know, I shouldn’t have been hired.” David L. Gunn, former head of the New York and Washington, DC subway systems and former president of Amtrak. “Working on the Railroad” Harvard Magazine, November-December 2002

  • Lizzie 58

    If Brenda McKenzie, BDC staff and the BDC Board of Directors did not know about the Lexington, KY incident, then they did not do their due diligence before engaging Angelou Economics. It would have only taken an Internet search and a few phone calls. If they did know and thought it did not matter, then they have no respect for the taxpayers in how they use public funds given to their agency. The fact is– whatever report is drafted by Angelou associates, it will be viewed suspiciously and to be without merit. The report is probably DOA.

    Brenda McKenzie will have been at BDC for one year on December 17. What has she done? She has hired a chief of staff and brought a former colleague from Chicago to Baltimore at the taxpayer’s expense. Other than that, what has Ms. McKenzie done?

    The citizens and taxpayers of Baltimore deserve better. We will not get it under this Administration.

  • ecogordo

    The questionnaire is rather generic and has no questions about city government. The future is about creative innovation and not corporate re-locations.

  • green lisa

    Why doesn’t the Baltimore Sun feature stories like this, which actually might be helpful to citizens who are interested in the operations of their government and the expenditure of their tax money? Is the Sun too busy spending time and money following fashionable locals around and photographing them at bars and fetes? Or rating bars?

    • Lizzie 58

      It is sad that the city taxpayers–be it residents or businesses –have come to accept these type of shenanigans in all city agencies (think wasted public money on speed cameras and VOIP phone contracts; water and property tax billing errors and failure to collect what is due to the city; $7 Million federal grant for homeless services that must be repaid) because we believe that nothing will change. We feel powerless; and we either move out of the City to get away from it or we live here and accept it.

  • KnowNothingParty

    Attract good jobs to the city by any means necessary. Get tough on crime. Develop a school system that emphasizes the 3 R’s. Practice merit based hiring to get the best individual for the job at hand. There I just gave a blue print for improvement for this faltering city. Send my check to “The Baltimore Brew”

  • Kryptaku

    Just a couple thoughts on this:

    1) Never trust anyone that spells it “U-Tube”. Jesus. That takes a significant lack of giving a shit about even the slightest hint of research.

    2) All of this consultant’s feedback seems incredibly vague, generic and/or common sense. Granted, we only see a small snippet above, but there didn’t seem to be any specifics. You can’t build a strategy around such generic concepts.

    3) The Brew asks if this consultant was the low bidder? Does that really matter? I’d hate to think anyone was ever hired because of their price point and not based on the quality of their work (if their work is good and solid). Buying on price point is a recipe for absolute disaster.

    4) All that said, I wish that people would recognize that sometimes consultants are necessary. Typically, when stories like this come out, people come out of the woodworks acting like all consultants are scam artists selling a lie. Strategic planning is really important, and at the end of the day, sometimes companies or government agencies don’t have the resources or expertise to do it in-house and it becomes much less expensive to hire someone from the outside.

    5) I don’t really see the big deal in them re-using some of their past work. If certain concepts work in one place and they’ve already written out details, etc, and if those same concepts would work somewhere else … why struggle to rewrite it all in a new way? But, again, we only get a snippet of the situation and not the whole story.

    • green lisa

      I’ve never read a strategic plan that wasn’t ungrammatical gobbledygook. And why do strategic planning consultants always look like televangelists?

      • green lisa

        For $165,000., we want fresh gobbledygook!

    • green lisa

      For $165,000., taxpayers deserve an original report, even if that means “struggling” to make it fresh. For $165,000., a little “struggling” seems called for.

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