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Analysis & Commentary
Mobilians mine Baltimore
for golden guidance

By Katie Wompus
special to The Mobile Bay Times
A mite more than 100 Mobilians traveled en masse to Baltimore June 2-4 to draw ideas from that waterfront city for translating into the Alabama Port City’s similar landscape. The toney field trip is an annual event coordinated by the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce.

Mayor Mike Dow and County Commission Chairman Mike Dean co-chaired the trip, during which Dean, rather than Dow, seemed to most effectively drive home the message that he will be in the governmental driver’s seat for years to come. Dow was not without his clout, however, managing to schedule a Saturday night insider-group pow-wow with noted developer David Cordish. Cordish is the mastermind of Powerhouse Live, a Baltimore waterfront entertainment center that left Mobilians gaga at the possibilities back at home. Cordish is also the guru of some 22 developments nationwide that are credited with saving cities on the downward slide.

For a project to be successful, Cordish says the following must take place: 

His words to the wise in the group: “Respect your historic buildings but at the same time, make them successful.”

Local politicians along for the ride – and included in the development chat – were county Commissioner/mayoral candidate Sam Jones and council members Connie Hudson and Fred Richardson.  Hudson, often a dissenting voice in the feel-good world of political unity in Mobile, probably worked the crowd more deftly than anyone else. Hudson was frequently seen sharing a table or bus seat with folks who have made criticizing her and ultra-conservative counterpart Councilman Ben Brooks (who did not fit the trip into his schedule) their primary hobby.

The Chamber Leadership trip last visited Baltimore 14 years ago. Changes in that city over the period are multitudinous. Baltimore experienced a loss of almost one-third of its population between 1960 and 1990, dropping from nearly 1 million to 625,000. Major contributors to the population erosion were high crime, unresponsive city government and decaying residential areas near the city’s core.

Today Baltimore is on the rebound, apparently due in large part to Mayor Martin O’Malley, who did not devote any personal time to the Mobile contingency since he is busy running for governor. O’Malley’s imprint was on everything the trip included.

A small group of Mobilians was able to sit in on a CitiStat session Friday morning.  The trip was an eye opener for anyone who has ever attempted to work through the layers of municipal bureaucracy back home. CitiStat, established by the O’Malley administration, sets two primary goals: greater accountability in government and effective communication between the city government and citizens.
Every two weeks, key departments must meet with the First Deputy Mayor and other members of the Mayor’s Citistat Team for an Executive Briefing.  These meetings are intended to brief the mayor (through his staff) regarding ongoing projects and general management issues.  There are only six members on the CitiStat staff.  It is a lean but impressive operation.

Some private-sector members of the Mobile group were discomfited by the First Deputy Mayor’s intense grilling of the city’s Transportation Department Chief who could not adequately respond to questions relating to cost overruns, employee underachievement and failure to meet citizen expectations.

One of the more interesting exchanges between the DOT department head and the First Deputy regarded the renewal of a towing contract. The contract, due to expire on June 30, allowed the local tow-truck operators association to run something of a cartel at great expense to the city. The First Deputy questioned why this had not been put out to competitive bid. He also questioned why, with less than a month to go on the contract, no action had been taken to review it before it had to be automatically renewed for a 60-day period. While this seems like the kind of minutia that shouldn’t be discussed in a council meeting, it is certainly the kind of attention to detail that citizens expect from the city administration in managing money and other resources.

One of the best programs introduced by the City of Baltimore is the “311” call center. Citizens who need services are advised to call 311, a clearinghouse operations center designed to streamline communication between citizens who require services and the city departments who provide those services. While Mobile has its Action Center, response time and follow-up communication are not part of the mix.

When a Baltimore citizen calls 311, he or she can expect the following:

Mobile citizens would likely welcome a friendly and responsive translation of this program when calling the City of Mobile about street drainage, missed garbage pickup or eroding potholes.

Mobilians also toured Baltimore’s beautiful Inner Harbor, which brings entertainment and retail to the waterfront, encouraging both downtown residential growth and preservation of historic buildings.  The rub in translating this to Mobile is the high concentration of industrial development on Mobile Bay that seems to preclude development of much more “entertainment” space.

Fifty years ago, the Inner Harbor was infested with rotting warehouses, abandoned terminals and decaying piers that only contributed to an all-too-high violent crime rate. Today it is a family-oriented playground. The only industrial site prominent on the Baltimore harbor is the historic Domino sugar plant, which is, itself, a tourist attraction, and offers a sweet aroma when the wind shifts in just the right direction.

In the tour of the Inner Harbor, emphasis was again placed on historic preservation as key to residential and commercial development in the downtown area. Most developers take advantage of historic tax credits and recognize the value to maintaining the harbor’s historic character.

Baltimore, according to virtually every speaker in the three-day period, has three significant cultural components that impact its economic development: Eds, Feds and Meds.

Education, in terms of principally Johns Hopkins, the nation’s first research university, as well as Maryland University-Baltimore County and other regional higher-ed luminaries, constitute this mix.  Research institutions and higher-ed institutions that cultivate higher-achieving students have changed the profile of Baltimore’s educational community.

The Feds are, in a nutshell, Washington D.C. and all the related regulatory agencies within commuting distance of the city.

The Meds, again, reflect the stellar reputation of Johns Hopkins as a research hospital. Remarkably, most Mobilians on the trip readily elevated USA’s reputation to that of Johns Hopkins. Others, reluctant to disagree, seemed to wonder if this was based more upon wishful thinking than actual belief.

Baltimore has made great strides in drawing business and education leadership to the table together to help in the recruiting of jobs.  Mobile’s major disconnect in this area may be that public K-12 in Mobile is so desperately in need of repair that by the time students graduate and enter the workforce they will require a level of basic remediation that no employer should have to provide in a cost-effective environment. If this statement was made aloud, it was spoken so quietly that none of the make-nice-or-else trip core could squash it. Keep in mind that the entire local elected school board and Superintendent Harold Dodge were members of the field-trip family.

Speakers emphasized the importance of recognized and capitalizing upon the interrelatedness of business and education. Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, address the community’s most important economic development decision.  Hrabowski, an African-American native of Birmingham, spoke eloquently of a community’s need to “focus attention on bringing up all aspects” of its population.  He emphasized the need to raise standards for all students, particularly minorities, through mentoring programs and setting high expectations at an earlier age, as well as partnering with industry to put business leaders in touch with students in the classrooms long before they enter the work force.

Hrabowski said higher education should focus on niches where needs are not being met in area institutions. Avoiding duplication enhances an institution’s ability to raise financial support and to distinguish itself to attract brighter, higher-achieving students.

“Bright students attract bright students,” he said. 

He added that under his leadership some long-term departments had been dissolved.

“In order to be excellent at some things, you need to do away with other things.”

This prompted small-group discussion that USA should deep-six its football program and focus on established programs.

He concluded by saying that, regardless of your area in a community, “nothing is more significant than building the economy.”

Mobilians seemed to agree but whether powerbrokers are willing to match actions with words remains to be seen.
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