Center Maryland: Baltimore businesses: Building bridges to the city’s neighborhoods

Entering the Baltimore Inner Harbor with the Baltimore Skyline in the background

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on December 4, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

It is not unusual to hear negative commentary in news publications about Baltimore business interests and the suggestion that those located in the downtown business districts are focused on only their locale and don’t care about the rest of the city.

If by chance you’ve heard this critique, you know that “downtown” is an oblique way of saying businesses in Baltimore’s downtown, Inner Harbor and other nearby areas where many companies and corporations operate.

For decades this complaint surfaces, from time to time, and it did once again this week.

While it’s understandable why those who may not work or have daily interactions with the downtown or core business community might form this perception, there’s an abundance of evidence that the opposite is true – and has been so for many years.

This fact was underscored yet again this week when the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Baltimore Development Corporation announced the recipients of the Mayor’s Business Recognition Awards at an annual event sponsored by the GBC and BDC.

In its 41st year, the award recognizes businesses and organizations that have engaged in specific activities or projects that significantly benefit the Baltimore community and are outside of a business’s regular mission or day-to-day work or activities.

Take a look at a few of the award winners and their projects and programs and you’ll get a sense of some of the creative and well-thought-out initiatives that showcase just how deeply the business community cares about the entire city, from the bustling prospects of downtown to challenged communities in West Baltimore and East Baltimore.

Constellation, a unit of energy giant Exelon Co., received a Mayor’s Award for not one but three community service programs, one of which benefited Health Care for the Homeless.

The company has been a supporter of the Baltimore-based nonprofit since 1989, and this year put a creative spin on their outreach efforts to help the city’s homeless.

With winter approaching, Constellation employees decided to collect 250 new coats, hats and gloves for the homeless. But the employee group leading the program also wanted to provide an added health benefit and came up with the idea of providing a flu shot to any homeless person who showed up for the clothing distribution. Constellation donated funds to support for the flu vaccines and Healthcare for the Homeless took care of the rest. At a distribution of the warm clothing this fall, more than 200 accepted the shots.

An example of a “downtown” business going the extra mile to provide warm clothing and a huge health benefit to some of Baltimore’s neediest.

Wells Fargo Bank was another company that received a Mayor’s Award this year.

For the past five years, Wells Fargo has been deeply involved with communities in West Baltimore, an area hard hit by the civil unrest last spring. The bank’s employees have helped to start a community vegetable garden and have supported education in the community at Furman L. Templeton Elementary School with a financial literacy training program, among other initiatives.

Following the unrest, a Wells Fargo team reached out to Wanda G. Best, executive director for the Upton Planning Committee, an umbrella group for seven West Baltimore neighborhoods. Wells Fargo wanted suggestions for how it could best help community residents affected by the unrest.

Due to the fact that pharmacies and other shops that serve the West Baltimore area were looted or damaged in the unrest, many senior citizens had no way of getting badly needed personal supplies, Best told leaders at Wells Fargo.

Wells Fargo and its employees quickly stepped up, pulling together a wide range of items, from toilet tissue to toothpaste, and then distributing them for free at five “pop-up” style stores set up at senior centers and apartment buildings throughout the area.

Hundreds of seniors in need turned out to get the items they needed, recalls Best. It was also heartwarming to see that many of the bank’s employees volunteering at the pop-up stores were young, Best said.

A bridge was being built between these young “downtown” business professionals and West Baltimore’s senior residents.

Since then other companies have inquired about how they too might serve West Baltimore communities, Best said.

“Somebody has to open the door and begin building the bridge, and Wells Fargo has done just that. It’s been amazing,” West said.

One other business that received a Mayor’s Award isn’t a big company. It’s a small family-owned business and one with deep roots in the Fells Point area of Baltimore – Tochterman’s Fishing Tackle, founded in 1916.

For 18 years Tochterman’s has provided fishing bait at no charge for a Baltimore City Parks and Recreation program that introduces city youths from challenged communities to fishing and water­sheds. The business has also donated rods, reels and other equipment for prize awards at fishing programs held at streams and other waterways throughout the city. Since partnering with the city, 20,000 kids have benefitted from the programs and Tochterman’s generosity.

Tony Tochterman, who operates the Fells Point-based business, notes that he grew up watching his father and mother help underprivileged kids, schools and churches in need and so community service to Baltimore runs deep in the family.

You’d be hard pressed to think of a more wholesome pastime to introduce city youths to than a love for fishing. Photographs submitted with the award nomination for Tochterman’s show some of the kids holding their catch of the day. The huge smiles on their faces tell the story in a nutshell, Tony said.

“What a lot of people don’t know is just how many small businesses help people in need in this city on a regular basis,” Tony said. “They don’t make a big fanfare out of it. These businesses do it because it’s the right thing to do and they love Baltimore.”

Tochterman’s, Constellation and Wells Fargo are just three of the 14 businesses that received Mayor’s Awards – and to underscore Tony’s point those represent just a few of the many community service programs and initiatives that Baltimore businesses have launched since the unrest to assist communities in need or have been ongoing for many years.

Unfortunately, this outreach by businesses to the city’s communities doesn’t make front-page headlines. If it makes the news at all it is overwhelmed by the barrage of dramatic or negative news reporting.

And the good people behind these efforts, volunteering their time, energy and ideas, aren’t looking for the spotlight either. They are happy to fly under the radar, getting the good work done in many neighborhoods so city residents can see a difference in their daily lives.

So the next time you hear that downtown business interests don’t care about the rest of the city, think about the bridges that Tochterman’s, Wells Fargo, Constellation and untold other businesses are building in Baltimore communities and just how fortunate the entire city is for that commitment.

Don Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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