Creating Jobs In the Heart of the Food Deserts of Baltimore

The other day, someone asked us how we would bring employers to Baltimore. It’s a good question that we’ve decided to answer in print.

Here, in no particular order, are some simple strategies that we think the state and/or city should be supporting. If you’re interested, you can buy us lunch at a cheap diner and we can talk about it in detail over some home-made cherry pie for dessert. (Can you tell that our principal writer is dieting and can’t stop thinking about food?)

By the way, at least one of these suggestions may seem a little radical to some of you. Well, it is, but then it isn’t – and that, ladies and gentlemen, is where a lot of the really cool ideas start.

1. Auto loans.

Many of the city’s un- and under-employed don’t have the cars they need to get to jobs at a distance in the city and in the suburbs. Even though they may have found employment – construction, white collar jobs, whatever – they can’t get to work because their history of unemployment has left them with subpar credit that won’t qualify for brand new or relatively new used car financing. We need to help these families make a larger down payments and/or offer limited guarantees to their auto lenders. One way to do this is through what amounts to a second mortgage on their cars with very favorable terms.

Just helping the newly employed have the personal transportation they need to reach out for jobs at a distance will put an estimated 2000 to 3000 Baltimore workers back to work almost immediately, meaning within the first year of the program.

2. Incentives.

The incentives offered by most state and city programs fail, by a long-shot, to overcome the disincentives these depressed neighborhoods represent. Simply put, the value to employers that city and state programs offer is less than what it will take to get the job done. Way less. Someone needs to do the math and realize how insignificant current government programs are relative to the risks you’re asking employers to take.

Remember our non-profit corporate motto: “Never criticize without suggesting a better way.” Well, here goes…

  • You don’t want to just discount property taxes. You want to zero them out for at least 5 to 10 years. The properties we’re talking about offering these employers’ aren’t currently paying any property taxes anyway, so there’s no downside to what we’re proposing.
  • And the land on which these employers will build their facilities? It should be free, from the city’s very substantial inventory of vacant and abandoned property. The city owns way more vacant property than it will ever sell, so it might as well give some of it away to help these neighborhoods.
  • Zoning issues? There shouldn’t be any. The situation in these high unemployment neighborhoods is critical. Other than to protecting residents from toxic emissions and other really obnoxious land use, the city’s planning and zoning authorities to get out of the way and let employers do pretty much what’s in their best interests. Trust us on this… Unemployed and under-employed people are not going to complain about being able to walk a few blocks to a job they couldn’t have otherwise. You just can’t let a planner, however well-meaning, impose restrictions that inhibit the economic development of these neighborhoods.
  • Provide employers willing to locate in these neighborhoods and hire locally subsidized (zero interest?) construction and permanent financing for their facilities.
  • Work with the Baltimore Police Department to provide heightened security for these employers – and with developers to provide affordable housing nearby. …Yes, we’re talking about reinvigorating these neighborhoods from the inside out rather than from the periphery inward which is way too slow and offers none of the direct and indirect (ripple) effects that ignite short-term, self-sustaining growth.
  • Forget about “workforce development.” Training the unskilled and low-skilled independently of the jobs they may or may not find some day is a huge waste of time and money. What you want to do instead is subsidize the employers who will hire these workers and train them on the job – for jobs they’ll have for sure and for the indefinite future once their training is complete. …The cost of this program will be substantially less than the expenses the city and state are now incurring to support these unemployed and under-employed families.

3. Grocery stores.

Bottom line, no one respects a neighborhood that doesn’t have a nice grocery store and the shopping center to go with it – urban style, of course. And we’re not talking Whole Foods. A nice Giant Food will do fine. But how do you get one to open in the heart of the city’s food deserts? Turns out, it’s not all that hard.

All you have to do is meet with the region’s most prominent shopping center developers and make them an offer they can’t refuse. Whatever it costs the city and/or state, the effect on neighborhood growth – including rising property values and tax revenues, not to mention the savings from having fewer un- and under-employed families to support – will be well worth it. Give them free land, no property taxes and zero-interest financing, if they need it, plus enhanced security. Maybe cover their insurance premiums which will be higher than usual. And give them the numbers from market studies that show the volume of local business they’ll be enjoying.

And they’ll bring the grocery store anchors these neighborhoods desperately need and deserve. Likewise for all manner of complementary stores that will participate because of the low rents they’ll be charged and high sales volume they’ll realize from pioneering in these markets starving for commerce – and jobs. Make sure they all agree to hire locally in return for the various and substantial benefits we’ll be offering them. …Don’t believe me? What’s the city’s downside from giving it a shot?

And, when they do come, the city needs to limit the competition in a way that protects the neighborhoods from over development and assures long-term profitability for the shopping center pioneers who were the first to step up.

4. Creative development.

Remember the radical idea we promised? The ultimate solution for an urban food desert? Here goes…

Why not work with the Baltimore Office of Sustainability and the State’s Department of Agriculture to turn substantial parcels of vacant land that the CORE program and the city will be creating through demolition of junk vacant and abandoned housing… Turn all that land into inner-city, year around agricultural growth, processing and distribution that employs unskilled and low-skilled workers looking for jobs?

“Whew.”

Yes, that was a long sentence, but then it needed to be said and it’s worth thinking about. That’s right, in addition to other initiatives, we’re suggesting that the city aggressively recruit agriculture industry companies – from Maryland farmer’s to America’s international conglomerates – to hire literally thousands of the un- and under-skilled in the city produce, process, distribute and retail the food the city eats, some of it anyway – and green up the place while we’re at it.

Well, that’s our teaser. Interested? We hope so. Who knows? Maybe the city’s new Mayor, who is easily the best hope the city has had in a long while, will let her considerable intellect and creativity lose and actually do some of this – working with Governor Hogan who couldn’t be a better partner for the city. Wouldn’t that be nice?

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