Civic News
Digital access / Ecosystem development / Municipal government / Politics

Tax incentives, return to office, a new tech hub: 4 takeaways from a roundtable with Baltimore’s Sheila Dixon

The former mayor and current mayoral candidate held her first in-person discussion with members of the city’s tech community.

(L to R) Joel Benge (in back), Salil Choudhary, Sheila Dixon, Colin Chapman (on screen), Hakim Dyer and Janan Broadbent at a tech roundtable at the Harborview Towers near Federal Hill in February 2024. ( Rao)
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote to Andy Freeman, a senior director at East Baltimore Development, Inc. That quote has been removed. (2/21/2024, 11:26 a.m.) 
Sheila Dixon wants more workers to come back to Baltimore’s offices — including those in city government.

Bringing back municipal workers will equate to more people downtown, the former mayor and current mayoral candidate asserted, helping revive businesses in that depopulated part of the city. It’ll also enable more effective communication between private enterprises and the city agencies supposed to help them, she said.

“I know people are comfortable working from home, but if you go look at downtown and look at what’s happened: small businesses, restaurants, other places — they’re all closed,” Dixon said. “It’s dead around there. I know people are comfortable. And some areas, [like] IT, yeah, I understand you can work from home. But we need people back.”

Dixon, who served as mayor from 2007 to 2010 before resigning as part of a corruption case’s plea agreement, discussed these and other possible solutions to the city’s economic woes during a spirited Thursday night roundtable at the Harborview Towers near Federal Hill.

Event organizer Salil Choudhary, who has a professional background in tech and real estate, brought Dixon together with about 25 members of Maryland’s tech, nonprofit, political, real estate and related sectors. A cohort of panelists, including Dixon and moderated by Choudhary, traded points and gripes with the rest of the audience for over two hours.

The event was the first in which Dixon, who’s currently campaigning to replace incumbent Brandon Scott in the May 15 Democratic mayoral primary race, directly spoke about tech-related matters with the community.

Beyond the return-to-office preference, here are three other key takeaways from the wide-ranging conversation, including a reveal about an upcoming Mt. Vernon space.

A group of people sitting in a room while a woman in a yellow shirt speaks into a microphone.

Crystal Berger (in yellow) speaks. ( Rao)

People want bang for their buck on taxes

Several attendees suggested better tax incentives would help attract businesses to Baltimore City — and keep them there.

“There’re a lot of companies from within the US who would happily want to open up something in Baltimore,” said Choudhary, the event organizer and moderator. “We need to just create a positive for them, and also see [that] most of these companies would look for some tax benefits … because these companies are going to come here and create jobs.”

Various attendees described issues navigating city agencies. Arjun Hosakere, an associate director for East Baltimore-based community redevelopment organization ReBUILD Metro, connected those issues to taxes.

High taxes aren’t a problem, he said, as long as they’re reflected in better services.

“When it comes to, hey, I need a permit, a sidewalk closure permit, how long does that process take?” Hosakere said. “The number of people that you have to talk to, the fact that I have to chase down the person that’s sitting on the other side of the screen to remind them, ‘Hey, your 15 days to check your message is up. Are you going to get to this at some point?’ And then, instead, I get a nasty response back saying, ‘Stop annoying me on the message.’ Right? That’s the stuff that we have to deal with.”

Dixon responded by noting the importance of partnering with federal and state governments on tax incentives. She also said city employees need to focus on taxpayers’ concerns.

“The message has to be given from the top: We work for the taxpayer,” Dixon said. “You’re going to come back to work, you’re going to respond to people in a timely manner, you’re going to follow up … And you’re going to have a phone number on your email.”

A group of people sitting around a table in a room with brown paneling and carpet

A scene from the Baltimore tech industry roundtable. ( Rao)

Nothing’s possible without equal access, opportunity and exposure

Baltimore Robotics Center and Baltimore Regional Tech Council leader Ed Mullin drew on his experiences working with employers and students to argue the state needs to better connect its workforce vacancies with the young people who could fill them (and often leave for jobs elsewhere).

“There are 20,000 open computing jobs in the state of Maryland. In a ton of those jobs, we don’t need any companies to come here. We have an abundance of employment, and it’s around feds, meds and eds,” Mullin said.

“I work with some of the smartest kids in Baltimore City that just happened to be born in the wrong zip code,” he added. “Figuring out how to fill those 20,000 open jobs, at $100K a piece, that’s generational wealth.”

CEO Crystal Berger of EBO, which operates a platform for booking media appearances, cited how little VC funding Black women founders like her receive. She said the city, which is predominantly Black and endemically segregated, needs to embed equity of funding, digital access and educational opportunities into any of its innovation work.

“If we want to sustain these tech ecosystems,” Berger said, “are we really collectively talking about the issues from the data points that matter?”

How would Dixon handle Comcast’s near-monopoly over internet access in a city with such a deep digital divide? The candidate didn’t have a firm answer, but said the city needs to address how it can expand competition beyond the few pockets with Fios or public wifi available. She also said BGE’s contract for underground conduits should be reviewed.

Joel Benge in navy blazer and brown pants standing in front of screen

Joel Benge delivers presentation on new tech industry meeting space. ( Rao)

A new space for Baltimore tech

After a discussion touching on all the above topics, as well as others like the city’s digital vulnerability and founders’ difficulties with the city’s M/WBE certification process, the gathering concluded with founder-turned-marketer Joel Benge’s presentation on a new tech meetup space and membership club in Mt. Vernon that he and Choudhary plan to open in April.

The space is intended to fill what Benge called a void left unaddressed by coworking spaces, recurring happy hours and other existing meetups.

Set to occupy several floors in the historic Haliburton building at North Charles and West Preston streets, it’s slated to include communal meeting spaces as well as short-term residential units. The organizers also plan for it to host special cohorts, salons, panels and other less formal gatherings for the tech sector.

“We’re calling this the future home of Baltimore’s tech community,” Benge said. “It’ll be coming in a couple of short months. But what we need from you is your input.”

Companies: Maryland Tech Council / City of Baltimore / State of Maryland

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