Over the past year, the organizing engine behind the Baltimore region’s business interests has fundamentally changed.
The Greater Baltimore Committee, the area’s pro-business advocacy group, merged with the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore last year, condensing into one larger voice. It coincided with the departure of the GBC’s longtime leader, Donald C. Fry, who stepped down after nearly two decades at the helm. Mark Anthony Thomas, a newcomer to Baltimore with a fresh set of eyes, stepped in to replace him by the year’s end, eager to build a legacy.
Now Thomas plans to take the GBC’s hard reset a step further by bestowing it with a new cause, too: He wants to lead the business community in solving the city’s vacant house crisis, which he views as a existential threat to the region’s economic vitality.
“If we don’t address that, then shame on us,” Thomas said Thursday, hours before taking the stage at the GBC’s annual meeting, the first since his installment in December and since last year’s merger. “It is a fundamental failure we have to put our greatest minds together to solve.”
Thomas, who came to Baltimore following a stint as the leader of Pittsburgh’s economic alliance, said jobs, growth and development all depend on the city’s ability to increase the market value of its housing stock. The conundrum, which spans neighborhoods across the city, has been described as an intractable and expensive problem by those who have studied it. And the blight is disproportionately concentrated in predominantly Black neighborhoods, a Baltimore Banner data analysis published last year found.
Thomas views the business community as uniquely positioned to take the wheel on this challenge and hopes to spend the next year crafting a “market-based, scalable solution” that touches on policy, financing and community development opportunities, he said. That may include lobbying for a city-based land bank that would be tasked with maintaining and awarding properties to new stewards, or backing a proposal to use tax increment financing — a mechanism that floats bonds ahead of development and repays them using future property taxes — to support the infrastructure needs an overhaul might entail, Thomas said.
He hopes the broader community of business and civic leaders who may not have participated in GBC mobilizations in the past gets involved and excited about playing a role now.
“My sense is that it [vacant housing] has been a problem, but the business community has never been the best partner in trying to solve it,” he said. “We have a lot more influence and impact than we give ourselves credit for.”
The city lists about 14,000 homes in its vacant and abandoned property inventory, though many have argued that the number has never been accurately tallied and could be much higher. And Baltimore leaders also have wrestled with addressing the thousands of vacant lots within its borders, which command their own distinct concerns.
A deadly vacant house fire in early 2022 seemed to reenergize city leaders to tackle the behemoth, and Mayor Brandon Scott awarded the city’s housing department a $144 million commitment in federal COVID-19 relief aid toward several housing needs, including vacancy and blight elimination, a few months later. But the cost for eradicating the city’s abandoned housing stock may reach into the billions, several housing developers, community leaders and urban researchers have said.
In a Friday statement, a spokesperson for the city’s housing department stressed that Baltimore’s vacant housing problem did not happen overnight, but that Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration has seen some progress since he took office. “We welcome GBC’s interest in strengthening the business community’s partnership in advancing Mayor Scott’s Comprehensive Vacants Reduction Strategy forward,” the spokesperson said.
The annual meeting marks the official introduction of Thomas to the broader business ecosystem, which counts about 500 businesses and other entities as members. After assuming the role late last year, Thomas said he hoped to diversify the membership over time and reposition the GBC as the “greater good” voice that considers diversity, equity and inclusion at the forefront of its initiatives rather than as afterthoughts.
“There’s so much power if you actually have 500-plus people who say, ‘Let’s collectively make an impact.’ But we have to be a place where people view that that is what we’re set up to do, so we actually can deliver,” he told The Banner in an interview earlier this year.
In addition to vacant housing, Thomas said he hopes to pick a few topics for the GBC to lead, including improving the region’s public transit system and teeing Baltimore up for “big economic opportunities,” such as large-scale events the city can host.
The organization, which has paused new membership applications as it dealt with the merger and onboarding of new staff, will resume accepting new members after Thursday’s meeting, Thomas said, and will roll out ways for business leaders to get involved outside of traditional membership.
The organization also introduced three new staff members who will act as liaisons between businesses and the GBC and unveiled 12 key initiatives it hopes to champion related to economic opportunity, transportation and infrastructure. Those items included supporting police officer recruitment, developing a 10-year economic strategy with an outside firm and reducing gun violence.
Thomas acknowledged the repositioning as a complex endeavor, but said he is aided by a post-COVID labor market, a supportive administration in Annapolis, and a sympathetic federal delegation in the U.S. Congress that he hopes to collaborate with to bring more investment home.
“I feel I’m better prepared to drive us forward than I think I’ve ever been,” he said. “Having two organizations that people didn’t believe in was a huge lost opportunity, and I feel it’s my job is to get us on the trajectory of momentum in the way everything else is trending.”