Recently, my university was asked to cohost an annual, international conference that would bring to Baltimore several hundred educators, business experts and others devoted to strengthening the ties between higher education and entrepreneurship. The conference organizers said they chose Baltimore as the host city because they recognize our potential as a “surge city,” an ideal place to start and grow a business.
I was thrilled. However, when I began discussing this event locally, some people wondered, “Why Baltimore?”
It’s a question that many in the community seem to ask a lot: What do we have to do to make this city, which we love and are quite passionate about, as great as we know it could be? As a relative newcomer and an “outsider” – I’ve been in Baltimore for only seven years now – I believe I can offer a unique perspective, one that I think, and hope, will be echoed soon by other outsiders making their way to Baltimore this fall.
From what I’ve seen, I strongly believe that there are forward-thinking people living here who are ready to roll up their sleeves and offer up their expertise to create the renaissance we are collectively seeking. So, what are we waiting for? There’s no time like the present to act on the things we know to be true.
Here are just four points that Baltimore’s leaders should consider:
- Baltimore, like any number of older American cities, is poised to come out of the pandemic with impressive growth and development. The well-known urbanist Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto School of Cities, and the author of several best-sellers including “The Rise of the Creative Class”, told the attendees at the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore’s April annual meeting that the city is a “distinguished global startup hub,” drawing hundreds of millions in venture funds. What’s our hook? We’re situated in a dense Northeast corridor that boasts 50 million residents, with a global finance hub on one end, a powerful federal government on the other, hundreds of renowned universities and thousands of innovative thinkers and doers dotting the megalopolis in-between.
- While we’ve been losing commercial traffic in the downtown business district, other parts of town are ramping up and preparing for significant growth. This is a temporary problem; e.g., renew the area around the Inner Harbor, and people will come back. It’s cyclical.
- The 2020 U.S. Census revealed that Baltimore’s population is falling, and overall employment growth is lagging. This information was not surprising. But what is worth noting is that performance of Baltimore City’s entrepreneurial community and small business sectors, continues to exhibit strength. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census’ Quarterly Workforce Indicators, over the pre-pandemic recovery period (2009-19), new businesses (less than 1-year-old) accounted for more than half (56%) of the City’s net private sector job growth. The city’s vibrant small business community—defined as less than 20 employees—accounted for 34% of job growth. Tapping into and supporting this entrepreneurial and small business strength will be the key to revitalizing our city.
- We’re figuring out who we are as a city. Yes, it’s taken us a long time to get there. But the local business community isn’t lamenting the loss of well-known, Fortune 500 companies. They’re tuned in to a smarter, more sustainable future. I define that as small- to medium-sized companies — some manufacturing, some transportation, some tech, and some healthcare. And here’s where it gets interesting. All of it is depending largely on local talent. Remember that 50 million residents figure I mentioned earlier? Comes in handy when you’re working hard to renew your city.
Of these four points, I urge you to focus most closely on that last one. We are, indeed, poised to renew Baltimore. We believe in ourselves, and each other. The time for worrying about our future, chalking up losses and not balancing them out with gains, is over. This city, for all of its potential, has doubted itself for reasons that go back decades. Enough.
We see how much local brain power and creativity there is, in our schools, incubators, companies, and in our streets. Let’s nurture that – proudly. The creative class is a major differentiator between good and great in any urban setting.
We have incredible housing, one-of-a-kind parks and green spaces, and some of the best high schools, colleges and universities in the country, right here in town. We have 26 coworking spaces, more than 16 business incubators, and 60 federal research labs, all within a 30-mile radius. Let’s make these qualities the very foundation of this period of renewal.
And let’s do one more thing: We need to consistently think of ourselves, the people of Baltimore, as successful entrepreneurs. We get up in the morning, we want to do well for ourselves and others. We’re solo practitioners, and we’re part a broad, close-knit entrepreneurial ecosystem, too. We have a voice, an attitude, and we’re optimistic to a fault. Our vision is clear, and original. To be blunt about it, people want to be like us, and live where we live. Let’s keep them envious.
We need to consistently think of ourselves, the people of Baltimore, as successful entrepreneurs.
And that brings me to the fifth point, and back to that conference I mentioned, which I believe offers some evidence that big changes are coming to Baltimore: On Oct. 13-16, The University of Baltimore and Loyola University Maryland will host the 2021 Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers’ annual meeting. The event’s theme, “Leading with Entrepreneurship: Succeeding in Revitalization,” is intended to provide clear examples of how higher education and entrepreneurs are leading the way to create the new companies that are transforming their communities.
Baltimore’s many coworking spaces, business incubators, and federal research labs, paired with the significant contributions of its various metropolitan colleges and universities, provide a broad, close-knit entrepreneurial ecosystem that is bolstering the city’s ongoing revival. I believe this is a great opportunity not only for the two universities, but also for the region’s business community.
Why Baltimore? Why not Baltimore?
I think it’s true that it takes an outsider to remind you when you’re doing well. We have problems here, some situational, and some systemic. But a lot of us feel that we’re past the worst of a long period of second-guessing and self-doubt.
What’s it going to take to make Baltimore great? I think we already know – it’s us.-30-