Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Hogan's Secretary of Commerce reports from his first year of work

"It's more fun to be a pirate than join the Navy - That is us!" With this not stuffy or Republican adoption of the Steve Jobbs quote Governor Hogan's
Secretary of Commerce Mike Gill concluded his remarks in Ballard Spahr's series of morning talks over breakfast.
Secretary of Commerce, Mike Gill: High energy 

Grey corporate suits aplenty, the view of the Harbor splendid, and many of Maryland's past and present power players in the room such as Ken Holt, the Secretary of Housing, the former Secretary of Transportation David Winstead (now with Ballard Spahr), former Mayor and now university President  Kurt Schmoke, UM VP Jane Shaab, Council President Jack Young, Under Amour Real Estate VP Neil Juergens, VP of the Maryland Building Industry Josh Greenfeld, developers Caroline Moore, Richard Manekin, Doug Kington and about sixty others, Mike Gill felt like he was "being with the home team".

His bio and his audience made his remarks sound like the can-do tone one often hears from better corporate board officers.

Up on the 18th floor of the Pratt Street Tower overlooking the Inner Harbor mingling over coffee, fruit and croissants the outlook was rosy and the optimism was thick that comes from a new beginning and just completing the first year in office with high rating in the polls. 
Bullish on Maryland 

Just returning from a red eye trip to Phoenix, Gill didn't seem tired at all. He isn't the guy who would stay behind the podium; equipped with a clip on mike he wandered deep down the aisle, took his jacket off right away and warmed the audience with a bunch of stand-up comedic stories. " Maryland is even better than I thought it was" he says and recounted that in his first year he feels like he has met all 6 million Marylanders except 150, and those 150 were the residents of Smith Island.

In a free stream of consciousness he talked energetically about the last legislative session as one without any new taxes as a success, he mentioned the $40 fee one was presumably required to pay to get welfare stamps that was removed, the retention of McCormick ("they smell really good") and his awakening to the fact that he had to wait what the Governor says before he can opine about something. He did opine that Maglev really is going to happen. "We need to go beyond Red Line, we need to go Maglev" he said as if was aiming for a bigger trophy. 
The lofty perspective from Ballard Spahr's conference room

"In November we ranked 13th in the nation in job growth, we had 50% more growth than Virginia" he exclaimed, followed by a dry: "Virginia is overrated". "Maryland is back in the game. We have all these great assets".

He mentioned the Port as #1 in auto and #8 overall. He noted the tens of thousands of employees at Fort Meade, Port Covington and the I-270 corridor. There was an asset in Baltimore as well: "We are among the top three in the country with Millennials in the city".

He noted that Senate President Miller's Maryland Economic and Business Climate Commission dubbed the Augustine Commission, put a report together with "really cool stuff".
The name change from DBED to Department of Commerce is not just a new name but a program and a culture, he says, the culture of moving not just one thing but everything forward, not just economic development anymore. To stress the inter-connectedness a sub-cabinet for commerce was formed. He explained that "customer service" is not just a department at Southwest Airlines, but a culture. "Many things in Maryland had gathered cob webs", he observed. We want to "get all 24 jurisdictions to come into play".  "Everybody needs to win".  

He recounted that all 16 business leaders in a recent meeting named workforce development as their biggest challenge for 2016. It wasn't immediately clear what his response would be.

"There will be a story in Time Magazine" he predicted and "it will be titled "The renaissance of Baltimore". That must have sounded quite familiar to Kurt Schmoke, who as Mayor, had issued a report under that very same title some 25 years ago.

Someone in the audience who worked in Sandtown wanted to know how Gill's department could focus investment on job training in the dis-invested community. Before Gill gave his answer he took a longer breath. Then he observed that it feels "like chaos, too many initiatives" and that there is "no team captain". There was the sense again that leadership can solve just about anything.

A Strategic Plan for the Dept of Commerce  will come out in a couple of weeks after a committee chaired by "Jim no holds barred Brady" (one of Gills predecessors) puts the final touches on. Gill wants to see Maryland being competitive through the right attitude, streamlined regulation, and less taxes. You need people who get it from the top down. He likened government to a "closet where everything gets thrown in". We are cleaning out the closets. 
His principles are "Best is the standard, dream big and have a sense of urgency", each of which there is little to quibble with in the abstract. 

Gill summarized his talk this way: "We have a good story to tell but it has been a long time since it was told." Given how little traction O'Malley gets with his own version of the story, one tends to agree.

Mike Gill is a good story teller, indeed. There was no yawning and no texting in the room just rapt listeners! "I start every answer with yes" he said, "and work from there backward".

But when asked about State Center, there was no yes. He remembered then that he can only say what his boss is saying and mumbled something about $50 rents that were being studied. Now the sense of urgency translated into: "There will be a decision in the first half of this year, or maybe in the second, but not outside of this year". This isn't exactly "open for business" from the view of the team that has invested in the State Center Plan and has been waiting and waiting for a decision after Governor O'Malley left this one to his successors.

But Josh Neiman got a yes when he asked if the Secretary would support to increase the funds for Maryland's historic tax credits, at least a yes for a meeting to discuss it .

Urban policy and State Government is more complicated than founding a company and making tough board decisions as a CEO. That doesn't slow Mike Gill: "If we fail," he told a group of his advisers, "I will found a company and I will hire you all". Meanwhile his boss, the Governor announced tax breaks for businesses today. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA