Friday, August 14, 2020

Broken promises and an evaporated dream: Innovation Village West Baltimore

Today I take the rare step of using this blog to amplify an article published in a commercial media outlet, the Business Journal's article titled: 
"They Never Followed Through"
The article is written by Morgan Eichensehr and Ethan McLeod.
Innovation Village founder Richard May at a  media
event" on June 20, 2016 (Photo: Philipsen)
It is a follow up I should have done myself after my 2016  hopeful reports about the Baltimore Innovation Village on this blog here and here.

I knew that not much has been left of Innovation Village for some time, but feared to "rub it in" when Baltimore has enough other broken promises. But even a layperson's "journalism" should maintain the unflinching view that I had, even when Innovation Village was first launched.

My skepticism was obvious in my opening lines of the article under the title:" Innovation Village: What's Next?"
In a well attended public "press conference" long on speakers and short on specifics, Innovation Village, a private and non-profit undertaking got another boost in public awareness. [...]
Questions about the hype also characterized the last paragraph of my article:
Practically minded people in the community, people who have been in the trenches of actual community development work for years, ask what specifically the Innovation Village has done or will do. That is a fair question. Proclamations alone won't do. But the array of people in support of the concept is impressive
The skepticism turns out to have been quite justified as today's inquisitive BBJ article shows. It quotes disenchanted stakeholders:
Dale Terrill, who served as vice president for the Mount Royal CDC before he left the organization in 2017, said May was “a very good salesperson and promotional marketeer,” but the internet access initiative amounted to “a farce” without any real plans for implementation. Mount Royal CDC itself has lapsed, having forfeited its registration last year, per state business records.
Lucas, of Moms as Entrepreneurs, said the whole situation is the kind that makes West Baltimore residents feel disillusioned and so often distrusting of those who come into their communities and say they want to build something new.
“Everyone made such a big deal about these big plans...and none of that ever really materialized,” she said. “Where was the accountability? Where is Rich May?" (BBJ)
Tammira Lucas and Leon Pinkett at the media event
(Photo: Philipsen)
The idea of investing in West Baltimore via innovation start-ups and technology was and is wonderful. Instead of innovation concentrations in already well to do cities and their wealthy communities, Baltimore would harness the start-up culture for investment in its poorest neighborhoods that had gained international notoriety after the death of Freddie Gray. Problem is, Baltimore's pool venture capital available for start-ups doesn't measure up to other cities.
"Technology mirrors those who developed it. We must not just be consumers but drivers" [of smart cities and] do the analysis and the math ourselves." (York Eggleston of Semantic Labs at the Baltimore Smart City summit 2017)
For his public "press conference" about Innovation Village Richard May, "the good salesman" had managed to bring out everyone with a name in Baltimore. They all lined up to take the podium on a warm and sunny June Monday in 2016: Congressman Elijah Cummings, Mayor Pugh, MICA President Hoy, Urban League President Howard Henderson, Delegate Barbara Robinson, Delegate Keith Haynes, BDC CEO Bill Cole, Councilman Mosby and Leon Pinkett, III, Assistant Deputy Mayor for Economic and Neighborhood Development. A slew of groups who practice equity innovation in Baltimore such as Jeff Cherry of Conscious Venture Labs, Sheldon Caplis of the Food Hub, Joe Jones of the Center for Urban Families and Tammira Lucas of Moms as Entrepreneurs seemed to vouch for the solidity of the concept. The late Congressman Elijah Cummings said:
"This is a faith event. It takes a village for a city to be healthy and children to be what they are meant to be. We finally have a model. We are under a microscope. How will we do in changing the trajectory of so many young people?
...Diversity is not our problem but our promise.
Congressman Cummings in 2016 at the same event
(Photo: Philipsen)
We make sure we will be here for the launching" [of Innovation Village]. [...]all of Baltimore" should be rising:...I will say 'all' until I die". (Congressman Elijah Cummings)
This is a large group of people to disappoint and essentially deceive. Worse, though, the result represents another broken promise for West Baltimore, where no big promise ever came through, from Jim Rouses' envisioned turn-around to the cancelled State Center and Red Line projects, to "North Avenue Rising" which due to lack of City investment never grew beyond being a streetscape and bus lane project.

The 2016 press conference took place in front of Coppin's big new Tech Center. Behind it literally the notion that an Innovation Hub needs to be backed by an institutional partner. However, Coppin was only a photo-op, there was never a formal agreement for Coppin to be an institutional anchor, plus: Coppin's Tech facility is also more promise than reality. The university is reeling from lack of enrollment and has neither staff nor resources to fill its own tech center with tech content, let alone provide the backbone for a concept like Innovation Village. This left Rich May doing his thing until he didn't feel like it any more. 

Founder Richard May can't be found anywhere, according to the BBJ, even his partners haven't heard from him for over a year. Partner Andre Robinson is sanguine about it. He told the BBJ:
“[Innovation Village] was essentially a framing moment, but never rose above that. It fell apart and that was a big blow. But we have to shake it off and look at what we learned. We have to continue the work of building an inclusive, engaged Baltimore.” (Andre Robinson) 
Richard May still active at a BIW '17  event
Robinson, always good with catchy terms, essentially tells us, the idea is described ("a framing moment"), but it didn't come off the ground. What he doesn't say is that the"blow" to the idea leaves it blemished. It is hard to imagine that another high powered group would come out any time soon to embrace Innovation Village 2.0, even less likely will it be that vulnerable communities would embrace it.

The warning signs were there, early on. West Baltimore stakeholders who had been in the trenches for years were miffed about May swooping in and getting all the attention. Some said they were not consulted.  As the BBJ enumerates in its article, Innovation Village's physical presence shriveled from being "an anchor" Madison Park North, a new mixed use development planned for Reservoir Hill along North Avenue that is in itself a broken promise, to being housed in Mondawmin Mall (more broken promises) and eventually finding refuge in a branch facility of the Baltimore Community College on 2600 Liberty Heights.

Innovation Village promised bringing education, jobs and opportunities to West Baltimore, needs that are now bigger than ever, given the huge economic downturn and the health hazards that COVID has brought and which hits disinvested and disadvantaged communities harder than others. Access, knowledge and control of innovation (i.e. information) technology is more relevant for equity than ever as well.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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