Baltimore Business Journal: Don Fry: 2017 will bring change for Baltimore business

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on January 4, 2017.

Looking into the proverbial crystal ball is always risky business especially in the changing world of politics, but it’s safe to say that 2017 appears to be shaping up as a busy and interesting year on a number of business and economic fronts for Greater Baltimore and Maryland.

At this time of year, eyes turn to Annapolis and the convening of the annual Maryland General Assembly session, which kicks off Jan. 11. Speculating on upcoming legislative activities is always a good place to start for key issues and projects to watch and expect in the New Year.

The only action the General Assembly and governor are mandated by the state Constitution to pass during the 90-day legislative session is a balanced budget. With a projected budget shortfall in the upcoming 2018 fiscal year of $400 million, don’t expect Gov. Larry Hogan or the legislature to propose anything significant in the way of business or personal income tax relief. The money is just not there at this time.

Watch for a spirited debate over the governor’s plan to seek repeal of a law that requires the Maryland Department of Transportation to score and rank transportation projects, based on economic, environmental and other factors.

Proposals to require companies to provide paid sick leave will once again dominate the business community’s attention. A new twist has been added with the recent announcement that Gov. Hogan’s intention is to propose legislation requiring companies with at least 50 employees to offer full-time workers five sick days per year. Advocates would like to mandate that all employers with 15 or more employees offer a paid sick leave benefit. The House and Senate leadership have been working during the interim to craft a compromise based on last year’s legislation that passed the House of Delegates. Some version of the legislation will pass — the details are still up in the air.

The Maryland Department of Transportation reapplied this month for federal funding for two major infrastructure projects: improving the Howard Street Tunnel to allow for double-stack rail cars to and from the Port of Baltimore; and interstate access to the Port Covington development in Baltimore. The projects have strong support from the business community. Watch for state congressional leaders, the governor and Mayor Catherine Pugh to lobby hard for funding of these projects.

A new industry is poised to take flight in 2017: medical marijuana. The state has issued preliminary licenses for more than 100 dispensaries. Elected state leaders will strive to iron out concerns about racial diversity in the licensing process. Meanwhile, expect those licensees to begin focusing on getting operations and employees ready to start.

As for Baltimore, a new mayor and City Council are poised to hit the reset button and work on putting the negative impressions of Baltimore from the civil unrest of 2015 behind and restore a sense of optimism and pride. Look for the mayor to push to improve Baltimore’s image locally and nationally. Building Baltimore’s reputation as a good place to conduct business is a key priority of the business community and the private sector will be supportive and engaged in this effort.

There will be a continued emphasis from all levels of government on reducing violent crime and improving public safety in Baltimore. This is an issue that the business community is acutely interested in contributing ideas in order to ensure the safety of city residents, visitors and employees.

Many police reforms will be guided by details in the forthcoming consent decree between the Department of Justice and the city of Baltimore. The price tag of meeting the upcoming mandates has not been established but is likely to run in excess of $30 million. That price tag could weigh heavily on the funding capacity of other initiatives that the mayor or City Council hope to pursue.

Debate will be reignited over a proposal to create to $15-per-hour minimum wage in the city. A similar proposal failed in the last council but advocates have promised its return. Expect the business community to remain opposed to and express concerns about job reductions and placing the city at a competitive disadvantage should the legislation be approved.

Late in the year, look for the release of a study for an improved Baltimore Convention Center. The business community, especially the hospitality and tourism industry, is keenly interested in seeing this project move forward to improve Baltimore’s competitive position when bidding for convention business against other cities that have new or modernized facilities.

It’s worth keeping an eye on Tradepoint Atlantic and its redevelopment of the former Bethlehem Steel site. This project holds the potential to be a major job generator in the future. Tradepoint has signed several promising deals and there could be more announced in 2017.

Another exciting job project to watch is the redevelopment of Port Covington by Sagamore Development Co. into a commerce and housing hub. Watch for infrastructure improvements to begin in 2017 as Under Armour moves ahead with plans for a new headquarters at the site.

The business community will keep a close eye on the agenda of President-elect Donald Trump and the newly-elected Republican-controlled Congress. Proposed changes in tax, regulatory and trade policy will be of keen interest to business and its operations.

All in all, 2017 should shape up to be a year of change.

Donald C. Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

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