The best advice Mark Anthony Thomas ever received about business came from a colleague in the Los Angeles mayor’s office: “Just one person can change how thousands of employees do their work.”
It motivated Thomas, who served as a liaison between the business community and city government, to work across interests and win support on four separate issues during just one year on the job. “I can’t think of one person during the time I worked there that impacted the entire way a city operates more than I did,” he recalled of his tenure there.
With a career spanning communications, government and economic development, Thomas, 43, said he has spent decades training for his new role as CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a regional coalition of businesses, civic leaders and organizations that mobilize on topics related to jobs and economic growth, workforce development, transportation and other priorities identified by the regional business community.
Last year, the organization merged with the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore and its longtime CEO, Donald Fry, stepped down after nearly two decades. That leaves Thomas with an 81-person board to lead and the task of creating a new identity for the nearly 70-year-old institution.
Thomas, who led Pittsburgh’s economic alliance organization in his last job, said he may be uniquely able to oversee a board this size and shake up how the region thinks and goes about business.
The following interview with Thomas has been condensed and edited for clarity and brevity.
The Baltimore Banner: I know you can’t talk specifically about the rebranding of GBC yet. But can you talk broadly about what you would like it to be?
Mark Anthony Thomas: When you look at what happened during [civil unrest after the murder of] George Floyd, suddenly all the civic organizations were talking, and it was clearer than ever that they were not representative of the communities that they’re trying to promote. I want to be at the forefront of changing that, to where we’re not just saying we care about developing cities that lift everyone up — that we actually center the work around that.
What do you think the GBC’s main priorities should be going forward?
I think we have to get to a point where people view us as the long-term, greater good voice. 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 this is what we’re set up to do, so we actually can deliver.
I think some people might say, is the business community the best community for that to happen?
We have business leaders, we also have university presidents, nonprofits. We have all these business leaders who actually know and can then deploy their expertise. And then things that are, like, huge competitive opportunities, whether it’s big sporting events, the Olympics or the World Cup. The business leaders have to be really driving that kind of stuff.
How do you see the existing membership across GBC? Is that a coalition that could stand to be more diverse?
Yeah. And I think Maryland as a whole is quite diverse as far as what business is made of. But the GBC doesn’t necessarily reflect that. You have a ton of entrepreneurial, creative, diverse people who don’t view the GBC as a table they need to sit at.
Baltimore can be a very challenging environment, and I’ve heard people say it can be challenging to get things done. What made you say yes to the job, knowing those things?
When you look at America’s greatest challenges, they’re front and center in Baltimore. So, there is a personal fulfillment of making the biggest impact I can make. I knew there’d be real work to do in Baltimore that I felt like I was uniquely qualified to do. And I thought I actually would enjoy being here. And in a long-term way, I was looking for a place to work and actually prove that I could be part of the community and potentially retire in it, and Maryland checked all those boxes.
What are some interesting data points that caught your eye about Baltimore?
Well, that the population was declining. To me, that was surprising, that it declined as much as it has. I will say the broader regional populations is a positive, and the amount of schools [colleges and universities] in the region, that’s been impressive. There’s a lot you can build on there.
What do you like about Baltimore?
I grew up in Atlanta, so there’s just a certain element of culture that I didn’t have in Pittsburgh. It’s also different than New York and some of the bigger cities — Baltimore feels like home. And it’s always felt that way when I visited. I had a lot of friends that moved to Maryland and loved it. I was kind of glad to have a ready-made family, and if I actually made an impact, it would be something I can live through and be part of.
I’m sure you visited here a couple times while you were making the decision to take the job. Tell me what stood out to you, good and bad, and things that you might want to take on as passion projects.
The lopsided progress: I have people visiting who literally have only images of what they’ve seen on TV in Baltimore. And so their starting point is like, ‘Is it safe for me to even come see you there?’ So there’s all of that that we have to attack head-on. And that is actually the GBC’s role of working with the public sector to make progress on these issues. And then there’s the place-based improvements that have to happen — to just clean up the streets, fix blight, lights. That’s a passion of mine.
Is there a group of businesses that could really grow to be a hub in Baltimore, but don’t yet have the critical mass?
I haven’t seen Baltimore market itself for economic growth nearly the way that other places do. We haven’t really mapped that out for Baltimore, and the broader region, and then created the conditions then for people to have access to those jobs, and for the development community to feel like they’re supported in what they’re trying to do. And so there’s a space for us to really provide leadership here.
You seem to be talking about this job as if it’s the grand finale in your career.
I wanted this to be a legacy-building opportunity. If people look back 10 years from now, and Baltimore’s in the same state, I’ll feel like I failed, and I just don’t feel like I’ve been set up to fail with all this training and skills and investment.
Fun facts about Mark Anthony Thomas
Newsmaker: Thomas made history as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia as the first Black editor-in-chief of the school’s independent student newspaper, The Red & Black.
Many lives: Thomas studied journalism and went on to become the publisher and executive director of City Limits, a nonprofit investigative news outlet in New York City. He then received graduate degrees in public administration and business administration from Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, respectively.
Hobbies: He’s a dog owner who enjoys live events, arts and culture, and recreating on the water. Thomas also is a poet and documentary filmmaker.
Favorite Baltimore moments: Ottobar, W.C. Harlan.