- Associated Press - Saturday, March 22, 2014

BALTIMORE (AP) - Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has been Baltimore’s chief executive for more than four years, and her national profile has skyrocketed in large part because of television appearances in her relatively new role as secretary of the Democratic National Committee.

In a recent interview, Rawlings-Blake, who initially assumed the mayor’s post in 2010 before winning election in 2011, emphasized that her focus remains on Baltimore and helping the city attract new businesses and residents. In a wide-ranging conversation, the mayor discussed a variety of topics ranging from her legacy as mayor to why Baltimore’s blue-collar roots give it a leg up on Washington.

“I love D.C. I think that it is unfortunate that they have to fight to keep their D.C. identity,” Rawlings-Blake said. “I think Baltimore benefits from being able to be a place where you don’t have to . make a six-figure salary to live comfortably.”

What follows is a condensed version of an interview conducted with Rawlings-Blake this month in The Daily Record offices.

- Last budget we saw some mix of property tax cuts, some fee increases and then some adjustments to pension contributions. What can we expect this year?

This year, another year of belt tightening as we continue to grow out of the Great Recession. I think that it’s very important that we continue to look for ways to be a more efficient operation and do it in a way that allows us to grow our budget over time.

- Overall, how would you describe Baltimore’s budget situation?

I would say that we’re in a much stronger place than we were a year ago or two years ago, and certainly stronger than we were four years ago when I first became mayor. I think it is very important, and I take very seriously my fiduciary responsibility for the city. That’s one of the reasons that motivated my work with the 10-year financial plan, and in doing so I’m making the tough decisions and moving the city towards a stronger and firmer financial foundation. So we’re in a better position than we were and getting better every year.

- What’s the major difference between four, three or even two years ago and the fiscal year we’re entering into now?

All the tough choices that I made and all the things that I shared with the community when I released the 10-year financial plan. You know we had a $750 million structural deficit projected over 10 years. We’ve cut over $400 million of that through more efficient operation, cuts in the budget and the policy changes I’ve implemented.

- In your Q&A; session, (you) kind of briefly touched on the (Baltimore Development Corp.) and your feelings about the organization and how it’s doing. But how do you envision that organization’s role in the future?

A couple of things: My goal is to ensure that they’re working to strengthen small-business opportunities. We know that a lot of the job growth that we’ve seen, while we’ve had some pretty headline-grabbing companies move into the city with Amazon and the casino and things like that, a lot of the growth that we’re seeing is small business. So, my goal is to make that organization more responsive and of better support to small businesses, minority- and women-owned businesses, because we’ve seen a lot of opportunity there, as well as in the tech community.

- How would you assess the job we as a city have done in retaining and attracting new businesses?

Well, I was just at a luncheon and one of the businessmen said he just saw a report, and I don’t have the source, but he said that he recently read a report that last year Baltimore city created more new jobs than Washington, D.C. I know that we’ve done very well. . I think we’ve done a great job. Anecdotally, I feel it. I see it when I go out to visit some of the new businesses that are opening up, and you hear while you’re out and about the stories of businesses that are coming or startups that are being created. But if that is an actual number, I think it supports the notion that Baltimore is open for business and we have jobs.

- What are the biggest obstacles for us as a city to attract new businesses and new jobs?

There are a bunch of obstacles. I don’t know that any one thing is the biggest. I would say the reality of our efforts when it comes to public safety and the perceptions aren’t always in sync and when you’re fighting against a dramatized version of yourself that was extremely violent. It’s difficult when I think some of our media partners are far more reluctant to talk about any of our public safety successes but very willing to talk about the perceived challenges that we have.

- You’ve started taking a bigger role on the national stage recently. I wonder if you could talk about how you see Baltimore fitting in as a city - (it’s a) tough time for some cities, great time for others. What’s your sense of where the American city is right now?

I think Baltimore’s story is the story of a lot of cities, a lot of old industrial cities along the East Coast and the Mid-Atlantic. We’ve retooled ourselves, we’ve reinvented and rebranded, and I think in many sectors if you look at the strength of our economy, we’ve taken advantage of the assets that we have: the meds, the eds, the port, our proximity to D.C. when it comes to a lot of the job growth that we’re seeing. People want to get in on what’s happening here. They like the fact that we’re an authentic city. . One of the things that I think is different between D.C. and Baltimore is D.C. feels much more like a transplant city. And I think that when people come to Baltimore, the transplants want to fit in to the neighborhood they want to live in. They’re not trying to turn Baltimore into D.C.; they’re not trying to turn it into New York. They like the quirkiness and the eclectic mix of people that is Baltimore, and they want to be a part of that.

- Obviously, you have a few years left on your term here. But looking into your crystal ball, what will Baltimore’s economy look like when it’s your time to step down as mayor?

Step down?

- We’re not rushing you to retire. Just curious about (how) you want to be thought of?

If you talk about legacy, I consider (the Baltimore City Public Schools Construction and Revitalization Act of 2013) part of my legacy. I distinctly remember after that vote I felt like I understood my father (the late Del. Howard “Pete” Rawlings) a lot better in a sense that he knew that he was very ill and he knew that he was going into a surgery that he might not come out of, and he had a sense of calm that I could not figure out at the time. And he would talk about how comfortable he was with what he was able to accomplish in his life and how he would say routinely that when he looks in the mirror he’s OK with who is looking back at him because he knows the impact that he has. The thing that he didn’t talk about that I understood after that vote was that he knew . the work that he did has changed the face of our city for generations to come. And at that point when that legislation passed and the governor signed it, I knew that if I were to die the next day, I’d done something that is going to make my city better for generations to come unequivocally, no denying I have changed Baltimore for the better.

- The topic of affordable housing has been in the news a lot lately. Can you explain your vision for the city’s housing market and how that relates to the different programs initiated and supported by your administration?

We have to have a mix. So, just like with the schools, there are people who are pro-charter schools or against charter schools. It’s the same thing with housing. I don’t think there’s an either/or. We have to be committed to having a mix. I think this is where D.C. missed the ball. You have to continue to look for ways to continue to support affordable housing, workforce housing. I’ve been pleased with the partnership that we’ve had with the state in providing more opportunities for that. Are we where we need to be? No. I think there’s a long way to go to get as much quality affordable housing as I believe there is need for in Baltimore. But I think we’re certainly on the right path.

- One of the keys to development in the city is based around transportation. What transportation projects do you see as being a priority for the future and are necessary to development throughout (the city)?

It’s very simple. The Red Line is a priority. It will continue to spur development and grow jobs and connect our communities and our job centers. As well, another byproduct of the effort around UniverCity Partnership and Bromo district was a push to get the state to do a comprehensive look at our bus routes and how we can change them, how we can better align the bus service with the changing needs of the population. It’s no mistake the (Charm City) Circulator has outpaced the ridership by two or three or even fourfold what was anticipated. What we did is put a reliable, clean and free source of transportation where people wanted to go. We connected people with the places where they wanted to go, period. Which shows us that people are willing to use public transportation when it fits and suits their needs. So, if we’re able to better align what’s available with the state resources, I think we’ll be a much more connected city as well.


Information from: The Daily Record of Baltimore, https://www.mddailyrecord.com



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