Baltimore is an economic development success story, according to a recent survey conducted for the National League of Cities. In fact, economic development professionals who participated in the survey picked Baltimore as the most successful of the 20 cities that it described as the most innovative over the past five years.
The District didn't make the top 20 list, failing to receive the minimum 10 nominations that put cities including Seattle, St. Louis and Long Beach, Calif., in the select group. The survey results don't imply that the District's economic development program has been unsuccessful; simply that the city hasn't been at the forefront of local economic development, as perceived by those participating in the survey.
Baltimore's example, and two National League of Cities reports on which the survey is partially based, may help to explain why.
Economic development professionals who participated in the NLC survey cited several factors that they believe contributed primarily to the success of the top five cities, according to the reports, titled "The Visible Hand: Major Issues in City Economic Policy" and "Tools and Targets: The Mechanics of City Economic Development."
There is no "archetypically successful" city or a single model of successful economic development, according to the author of the research reports, Ann O'M. Bowman of the University of South Carolina. Nonetheless, it is implicit in her findings that cities such as Baltimore, Boston, San Antonio, Atlanta and Indianapolis -- the top five in the national survey -- have developed workable models.
Political leadership -- "most typically in terms of the mayor's role as catalyst and consensus builder" -- was a major consideration among respondents in the survey, according to Bowman.
In addition, Bowman said, successful cities made a concerted effort to "chip away" at the traditional barriers that divide the public and private sectors, "suggesting a depoliticization of the development process in these cities."
When economic development professionals were asked what made some cities more successful than others, they responded almost unanimously, "public-private partnerships."
Another characteristic of cities with successful economic development programs is their comprehensive downtown revitalization plans. But, Bowman emphasized, these cities have not revitalized their downtowns at the expense of neighborhoods. "They have developed community-conscious approaches that spread the benefits of economic development beyond the commercial core," she said.
In a different survey undertaken as part of Bowman's research for the NLC reports, economic development agencies in more than 300 cities were asked to indicate the extent to which they use 45 "tools" to promote economic development. A comparison of responses from economic development officials in the District and Baltimore is instructive.
Although the District's responses indicate the use of just over half of those tools in the past, at least 75 percent were employed by Baltimore. And while both cities reported having used economic development tools such as loan guarantees, loan subsidies and land condemnation in the past, it seems that Baltimore was the more resourceful of the two.
Copies of a questionnaire obtained from the NLC show that Baltimore has used economic development tools such as tax abatement, shared equity, donations of unused property, venture capital and procurement assistance to attract and strengthen business in the city. The District, on the other hand, has yet to use some of those tools, though economic development officials indicated on the questionnaire that they're likely to use them in the future.
Still, the mechanics of economic development don't appear to be as critical to a city's success as a strong public-private sector partnership. That's not only implicit in the Bowman studies, but has been cited repeatedly as the crucial factor in Baltimore's economic development success. A private nonprofit corporation operating under a contract with the city of Baltimore was created in 1965 to negotiate joint ventures between the city and private developers and to manage redevelopment projects. Thus the corporation became a vehicle for Baltimore's business community to become actively involved in the city's economic development.
In the interim, Washington's central business district also has undergone extensive redevelopment. But private developers and market forces, more than anything, have driven the growth in the District's office market -- the most prominent feature of economic development in the city.
The District still appears to lack what it takes to form the kind of public-private partnerships referred to in the NLC studies. Jack Heller, a Washington lawyer, addressed that very issue in a recent letter to The Washington Post. Business involvement in local matters is "generally peripheral," Heller wrote. With the exception of the local real estate industry, banking and small-scale retail firms, the business orientation in the District is national, Heller said.
Certainly, the Greater Washington Board of Trade is a powerful voice for business, but the board's orientation relative to the local economy is regional. Unlike Fairfax County, for example, where the private sector plays a major advocacy role in the county's economy, the District has yet to develop a private sector with a strong partisan voice for local economic development.