A new focus for the BDC

A new focus for the BDC

John Duda and hundreds of other Baltimore residents presenting a letter to Jay Brodie at the November 7, 2011 “Another BDC is Possible” Action.
John Duda and hundreds of other Baltimore residents presenting a letter to Jay Brodie at the November 7, 2011 “Another BDC is Possible” Action. Source: http://www.anotherbdcispossible.org/?p=16

John Duda's op-ed was originally published by the Baltimore Sun.

Now that M.J. "Jay" Brodie has officially ended his service as head of the Baltimore Development Corporation, it's time to focus on his yet to be named successor and the economic development challenges he or she will face. This century has led off with a major recession and cutbacks in most government programs. We need to focus on the needs of our most distressed neighborhoods as we move forward, using approaches that make the best use of limited resources.

According to the list of requirements the city has laid out for the new BDC head, the new director will be expected not only know about real estate development and the many tools the agency now has in place but must also be able to "plan, direct, coordinate and administer a comprehensive economic development plan with city agencies and partners." That is no small matter.

The economic development plans for the city talk about growth sectors such as health care, biotech and education. Fair enough. But what about entrepreneurial programs for small business creation in our neighborhoods (such as the creation of an alternative currency, the BNote, put together without city support)? What about strategies for those neighborhoods identified in the city's comprehensive plan as the most distressed neighborhoods?

To be comprehensive means to flesh out our approaches to small business development and support, workforce training, local hiring and community-based business creation, with well-defined strategies to work with nonprofit partners already in the neighborhoods. It means refocusing city procurement processes and service delivery strategies to help the parts of the city that most need an economic development boost — our food deserts, our areas of concentrated poverty massively impacted by business and residential abandonment, and our neighborhoods that lack a major anchor institution or expensive megaproject to drive development but have plenty of vacant buildings that could be redeveloped for new uses.

We talk about partnerships, but let's define them. There are social services programs operating in our neighborhoods that deal one-on-one with residents. Why not help these organizations by providing a common format so they can have their clients identify their skills and experience and enter it into a database so that when employers come to a neighborhood, they will have a list of available workers and their backgrounds? This does not need to happen just at the few employment centers the city operates but could involve many other partners.

Will the new BDC director work with the labor unions to recruit residents in our neighborhoods with the most unemployment and poverty so they can become trained workers? Will the city give priority to locating its facilities — and encouraging the state and private entities to locate facilities — in those neighborhoods most in need? Will the BDC urge the city to improve its procurement process so that local businesses will be able to provide the goods and services we import now? Will the new director work closely to develop a written plan for how the community colleges and the universities and the unions in the region can work together to offer career training opportunities in fields such as health care? Will the BDC study the feasibility of Baltimore creating more city-owned businesses? Will the BDC prioritize a fair development agenda that creates living wage jobs for those residents of Baltimore City who need them the most? And above all, will the BDC act transparently to engage the communities it should be serving in its role as the official nonprofit shepherd of the development process?

New and creative thinking is needed to meet the serious problems facing Baltimore today. New or reinvigorated partnerships with other government agencies, nonprofits, educational and religious institutions and community-based programs must be cultivated. Though many of these entities are doing good work, there is not a comprehensive, written plan for how all these and other approaches can be coordinated. The plan should be specific, measurable and evaluated. It should offer convincing systemic solutions, and not just more trickle down promises and gratuitous tax breaks. Preparation of this plan should be a top priority for the new head of BDC and should be completed within two years. The future of our city depends on it.

John Duda, a Baltimore resident, wrote this article with other members of the grassroots group Another BDC is Possible (anotherbdcispossible.org). His email is john@manifestor.org.

John is a member of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse Collective and is finishing a PhD at the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins on the history of the idea of self-organization.