The Indyreader Talks To: Another BDC Is Possible

The Indyreader Talks To: Another BDC Is Possible

Another BDC is Possible Meets with Jay Brodie of the BDC. Activist Pastor Heber Brown pictured. Photo By: Clayton Conn
Another BDC is Possible Meets with Jay Brodie of the BDC. Activist Pastor Heber Brown pictured. Photo By: Clayton Conn

The Indypendent Reader interviewed Another BDC Is Possible a month after their public meeting with Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) president, Jay Brodie, in November.

Indyreader: What is your organization’s background? When did it form? By whom?

AnotherBDC: The group formed after a meeting that arose from Occupy Baltimore. However, participation has been broader than just people who identify as Occupy participants, especially as we continue to outreach to other organizers and bring them on board. Many of the people involved have been involved in various attempts to educate, agitate, and organize around issues of development for years in one form or another (for instance the City From Below conference in 2009).

Indyreader: Can you describe the BDC, specifically its internal structure and institutional function? Does its internal composition represent Baltimore in your view?

AnotherBDC: The Baltimore Development Corporation is a “quasi-public” entity set up by the City of Baltimore to facilitate economic development, formed from the merger of the Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management, Inc., Howard Street Market Place, and the Baltimore Economic Development Corporation in 1991. It employs around 50 people directly and has a yearly budget of just under $10 million, according to the 2010 tax form 990 it is required to file with the IRS; nearly all of this budget is provided by the City of Baltimore. The relatively small size of this budget is probably deceptive; the power the BDC has to shape the development process in Baltimore is greatly amplified by its role in facilitating the transfer of public assets to private developers. While it doesn’t have the authority to do this directly (everything it does is subject to at least nominal oversight and approval from the City Council), it is responsible for coordinating with developers behind the scenes and bringing proposals to the table. In other words, it doesn’t get to pick the meal, but it is the only one creating the menu. The BDC thus facilitates the transfer of current public assets (like city owned properties, which it may also assemble on behalf of developers before a sale) as well as future ones (e.g. the tax breaks, PILOTs, and transfer of future tax revenues towards supporting private development projects, TIFs) which subsidize so much of big development in Baltimore. Its board is lacking any true representation of Baltimore. It’s composed of appointed city officials and members of the business community, especially from the financial sector. There’s no representation from labor, for instance, or from community groups.

Indyreader: How does it relate to other power centers, mainly city government and the corporate sector?

AnotherBDC: The conception that the BDC is the secret shadow government is appealing, but we think ultimately incorrect. The BDC is one particular node in the network of urban power that brings together the developers who know how to work the system, the city government officials and agencies tasked with planning and urban development, the nonprofit foundations which facilitate certain kinds of projects, the multinational corporations that profit from the various kinds of outsourcing arrangements, and the banking interests that profit from the process of financing all of this. One way to see the BDC’s function in all of this is as a kind of standing “back room”: close enough to the city for deals to be cut, but far enough away that the government is isolated from the bad decisions it might make.

Indyreader: A member of your organization was recently quoted by the Baltimore Brew saying, “Baltimore residents are basically presented with a menu. The menu only has one option on it, and they are told they can either choose what’s being offered or they can go hungry.” Can you explain in more detail how the BDC relates to the public?

AnotherBDC: The menu the BDC offers to Baltimore is largely composed of development projects which all follow the same strategy: attract new residents (and businesses intended to serve them) in order to grow the tax base. It largely leaves off any options designed to satisfy the needs of current city residents, concentrating on development projects that largely provide jobs that are precarious and near minimum wage levels, and which don’t, for instance, materially improve the conditions in the neighborhoods which need the most help. “Food deserts” (areas without easy access to healthy and affordable food) are a good example here: if we are going to subsidize development, why not subsidize grocery stores in neighborhoods that need them before subsidizing yet another tourist hotel in the harbor?

The big problem here is that the BDC is subject to democratic oversight, but not open to democratic participation. As a conduit designed to translate the power of private development capital into action, on the part of the municipal government that makes it possible to invest this capital profitably in urban development, the BDC doesn’t really function as an agency which facilitates broad-based participation. If you’re not coming to the table with the resources to carry out a development project, you’re not going to get help from the BDC, even if you’re affected by the development projects it carries out (it reshapes your city, financed in part by the taxes you pay.)

So the problem is ultimately bigger than the specific issues the BDC has with transparency and accountability, or the specific cozy relationships they have with certain big developers: the problem is that the development process by and large is structurally driven by wealthy interests who can then use urban development to become more wealthy, even as the city justifies this process with respect to the presumed benefits this development will bring to ordinary residents of the city.
Indyreader: How would you characterize the BDC’s economic development ideology? How does this ideology manifest in real-life policy terms?

AnotherBDC: The ideology is basically one that sees the economic welfare of the larger community as a side effect of economic development oriented towards private profit. In other words, it’s a kind of “trickle down” strategy: to help the poor, we have to publicly subsidize the rich. Practically, what results is development projects like the Inner Harbor, that create low wage, precarious jobs. A great example here is the debacle of the Baltimore Grand Prix, originally hailed as this magnificent success bringing all this money into Baltimore, but which has quickly become something of a cruel joke on the city. Not only did the race generate far less spending than predicted, mismanagement and poor financial planning has essentially bankrupted the race organizers, who still owe the city close to $2 million in unpaid fees and taxes. The BDC was the agency that reviewed and signed-off on the estimates of how profitable the race would be for the city. The other effect of this ideology is that the BDC, in approaching the problem of economic development in Baltimore, through this trickle-down lens, doesn’t function as we think it needs to: designing projects that directly benefit the community by design, rather than as an afterthought. For instance, why not find ways to create community-owned development projects? Why not help create worker-owned companies through public subsidies? Why not build a sustainable, locally-focused economy that empowers communities devastated by years of disinvestment?

Indyreader: Another BDC Is Possible focuses on three demands: transparency, ethics, and participation. Why did you choose these areas? What specific changes would you like to see here? And how would it change the BDC’s relationship with the public and power centers (city and corporate)?

AnotherBDC: By organizing our critique of the BDC under these three headings, we can bring a degree of intelligibility to a very complicated set of problems. Transparency: the BDC is notoriously opaque. There’s been considerable legal action, largely initiated by developers who felt they were getting unfairly cut out of the process, to make their operations more open to public inspection. Ethical development: if you’re going to create jobs with public money, you need to create good jobs. This is a fight that’s being waged by organizations like the United Workers, which we are honored to act in solidarity with. And finally, Participation: the other BDC we think is possible would be one which Baltimore residents are proud to have working on their behalf, which works alongside them, which builds trust rather than breeding suspicion, and which is unafraid to embrace new models and best practices for involving communities in the development process.

Indyreader: You all organized a meeting attended by 100+ Baltimore citizens with BDC president, Jay Brodie, on November 7th, 2011. How did this meeting come about? What did you intend to achieve? And what came out of it?

AnotherBDC: We decided it was important to take the energy of Occupy Baltimore, and the outrage at an economic system increasingly organized by and for the 1%, and focus some attention on the way that system manifests itself locally. The BDC headquarters at 36 S. Charles, just blocks away from the occupation at McKeldin Fountain, was an obvious place to start. There’s a lot of people who agree that there are some serious problems with the BDC: our action followed the United Workers’ “Haunted Harbor March” which highlighted the injustices workers face in the Inner Harbor, calling for fair development principals. It also saw, a few days later, the release of Carl Stokes’ city council report on TIFs and PILOTs, whose analysis was substantially aligned with the perspective we presented on the steps of the BDC; and that weekend saw Baltimore United in Leadership Development’s (BUILD) march through Harbor East, drawing the connections between tax breaks Downtown and austerity measures for the city’s schools and recreation centers. All in all, probably a bad week to be Jay Brodie. If there wasn’t so much concern with what’s going on with the BDC, and with the development model they represent, it probably would have been easier for them to ignore our demand for a public meeting.

Our intent was to begin a conversation with this first action: both with the BDC and, more importantly, with allies who wanted to help change the development regime in Baltimore City. In our conversation with the BDC, we secured a promise from Jay Brodie to meet with a subsequent delegation, as well as a commitment to begin posting their meeting minutes online as a token gesture of a desire to act more transparently (which, to their credit, they have started doing). But the meeting was also an opportunity for us to reach out to community stakeholders who shared aspects of our critique of the BDC, in this instance the United Workers, who have been agitating for “fair development” in the Inner Harbor; Bmore Local, who were on the front lines of the struggle to stop the Walmart 25th St. project; and Rev. Heber Brown, III, a Baltimore City preacher and eloquent advocate for social justice and anti-racism. This is an important part of our political vision for our work on development: we don’t have all the answers and we can only speak for ourselves. To really make our campaign meaningful, we need to facilitate these kinds of larger conversations.

Indyreader: This past fall you, along with Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse, co-hosted a presentation by Carl Davidson, on Spain’s “Mondragón and Solidarity Economy.” Can you explain to our readers what the Mondragón cooperative experiment is? Also, how is it relevant for Baltimore?

AnotherBDC: We’re hosting a series of events exploring alternative models for development and planning. Carl Davidson’s talk on Mondragón was part of this, as was a talk by Josh Lerner of the Participatory Budgeting Project. Mondragón is one of the most successful cooperative initiatives in the world: 85,000 workers owning their own businesses, linked together in a network which runs universities, provides employment benefits, operates its own banks, and does advanced research and development, which all started as a small anti-poverty effort set up by a Catholic priest in the Basque country in the 1950s. It’s a powerful example that other kinds of economic development are possible; in this case, a model that brings democracy into the workplace and builds community economic power, and on a rather large scale. We don’t see any reason why such a model shouldn’t be something explored in Baltimore: the LA Times, for instance, recently reported on the Mayor of Richmond, CA, who has started a program to bootstrap worker cooperatives on the Mondragón model, to begin rebuilding the urban economy there.

Indyreader: What are your future plans?

AnotherBDC: We’re going to continue our dialogue with the BDC and bring together a representative delegation to meet with Brodie and other members of the BDC in March 2012, assuming he doesn’t go back on his promise.