What measures can be taken for Baltimore City to emerge from the pandemic stronger than before?
Scooter Monroe, Vice President, Head of Office Leasing, Weller Development Company; Owen Rouse, Vice President of Investment Sales, MacKenzie Commercial Real Estate Services and Jason Schwartzberg, President, MD Energy Advisors gathered to offer their insights and perspectives.
Addressing economic development issues
Jason Schwatzberg (JS): A renewed focus on economic development is sorely needed and, although we should not give up on our efforts to attract large out-of-town users, we should reemphasize efforts to help the companies that have a presence within our city. The State proposed more than $8 billion worth of financial incentives to Amazon to establish its headquarters here, with approximately $2 billion targeted for infrastructure improvement. Why can’t we funnel those funds, or a portion thereof, to support our local companies and help them grow and thrive?
Owen Rouse (OR): We need our leaders and decisionmakers to comport themselves with a stronger sense of urgency. While the flames haven’t reached the second floor quite yet, we cannot afford a same-old, business-as-usual approach and expect for things to change. Businesses continue to exit downtown and we need to brace ourselves for a difficult tax problem and fiscal shakiness to emerge over the next two years. Subtraction is needed versus addition. Remove some of the obvious toxicities we are facing in the city and address the negative that is Harborplace.
Scooter Monroe (SM): Our team employs a regional approach that leverages numerous positives including the highly-educated and deep talent pool. The greater Baltimore-Washington, D.C. common market is recognized nationally for its concentration of cyber security and life sciences companies and tech employees. We also believe this region should be touted for its lower cost of living, as compared with other high-tech capitals such as San Francisco and Boston.”
Boosting commercial real estate occupancy
JS: Differentiation is needed. What aspects of Baltimore make it better and more attractive than other cities and what differentiates the various sections of the city? This starts with promoting the quality of life, entertainment and cultural amenities and attractions. Harborplace, long a source of pride locally and replication nationally, needs to be fixed. Establish more incentive zones to encourage businesses to relocate or expand here.
OR: The actual office stock needs to be addressed because I think we are in worse shape than most realize. There are some chronic vacancies in some downtown office buildings — vacant for years — with little hope to attract tenants, while others have been repositioned for multifamily uses. This has skewed the vacancy numbers. We need to rebrand parts of the central business district — micro neighborhoods — that have their own identity and can be tended to one building at a time. This requires some buy-in from the ownership as well as coordinated marketing efforts.
SM: I agree that retaining businesses that we have is extremely important and this should be coupled with growing the pie. Port Covington is developing trophy commercial office buildings along the waterfront and we are counting on the continued trend of a flight to quality among companies that wish to create one-of-a-kind office environments. Inspiring office space makes a difference with recruitment tactics. As you can see in places such as Austin and Nashville, Baltimore has an opportunity to leverage its existing workforce to create an inclusive and thriving ecosystem for businesses and entrepreneurs.
Improving public transportation and transit services
OR: We don’t need a red line or a purple line. Instead, we need a public transportation system that is clean, safe and runs on-time. If those metrics are achieved, then ridership will increase and routes can be added.
JS: The systems must be fast, reliable and inviting. It needs to be operated like a business, not a public entity, in which you cater to the clients and work hard to grow market share. I also envision a system that has increased connectivity to D.C. and its suburbs.
SM: We need to focus on multimodal transportation, and work toward less dependence on cars. Transportation also needs to equitably serve all neighborhoods.
Refining and redefining services to stimulate business
OR: There continues to be chatter concerning the number of economic development groups promoting the city and the consensus is there are too many. Economic development needs to be operated as a true business and the multiple entities is a hinderance and creates confusion. We need a unified approach that communicates a concise and consistent message.
JS: We need to ask ourselves what makes us best in class? What do we have that other East Coast cities do not and how can we leverage this to our advantage to retain top tier talent and attract new? Tulsa, OK is a great example of a city that has done just this. They have rebranded themselves as the ideal location for ‘remote workers.’ They performed an internal evaluation and arrived at a smart and memorable marketing message. Baltimore should take a page from that book. We need to highlight things like our proximity to D.C., Philly and New York, our access to beaches and coastline, access to a talented workforce and reasonable cost of living.
SM: To achieve success and be embraced by all constituents, companies need to be true partners, gather input and make decisions that work best for the local community. We continually invite out-of-towners to visit Baltimore and experience what is great about the city. They call us Charm City for a reason.