GBC’s Don Fry addresses issues of COVID-19 pandemic, broadband access at MEDA Winter Conference

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Greater Baltimore Committee President and CEO Donald C. Fry addressed a range of issues, including economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, broadband access and social justice during a panel discussion hosted by the Maryland Economic Development Association during its 2021 Winter Conference held virtually January 14.

The theme of the panel discussion was Maryland’s Business and Local Policy Perspective in light of the start of the Maryland General Assembly’s 90-day session, which kicked off January 13.

Issues Fry addressed and his insights included:

Economic recovery from the pandemic

Fry said there should be significant improvement in the Baltimore area once the pandemic subsides, but that employers and others will be looking to see what the “new normal” looks like once employees start to return to office environments. Businesses, he said, will still need to “pivot and adjust” to a changing business environment and that there likely will be an added focus on the health of workers in the workplace.

Fry said a key focus should be on the recovery of businesses, not just the reopening of businesses. He noted that Baltimore City has been disproportionally effected by the pandemic due to the density of office buildings in the downtown area and this will require that steps be taken to ensure the city and downtown come back from the pandemic revitalized. A key focus will be the business community working together to bring about a successful recovery, Fry said.

Broadband access

Fry said expanding broadband access will be a major issue this year for the Maryland General Assembly to debate and address in both the short-term and long-term. He noted that access to broadband is not only a challenge in rural areas of the state, but in many counties as well. He also noted that the broadband access is not just about remote school learning, but that it affects businesses and people looking for work as well. “This is an issue that will resonate for years to come, and now is the right time to address it,” Fry said.

Social justice and jobs and investment

Fry said the one word that resonates with social justice is “opportunity.”

“What exactly have we not done to provide equal opportunity for all individuals, whether it be from a state government procurement perspective or a business perspective working with minorities?” said Fry.

Fry noted he thought the presiding officers of the state Senate and House of Delegates [Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones] had done a good job of putting together workgroups and task forces before the General Assembly session started to come out with recommendations for what can be done from a statewide government perspective and a business perspective.

“That’s what we’re looking for – how do we ensure there’s fair opportunity for all,” Fry said.

Recommendations for COVID-19 continued vaccine rollout in Maryland

Fry said that it will be imperative for state officials to maintain a close working relationship with federal level officials so they can be clear on vaccine availability and distribution cycles. He said he was hopeful the new administration coming in under President-elect Joseph Biden will make some improvements to the program for delivering vaccines to the states. He credited Maryland’s two U.S. Senators, Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, for their efforts to ensure Maryland gets vaccine distributions. Fry also said Governor Larry Hogan has done a good job working with the Trump administration through Vice President Mike Pence, as well as building bridges to the incoming Biden administration, for vaccine delivery to Maryland.

Transportation

Fry said it will be important going forward to consider social justice in state transportation planning and funding. He noted that there should be a strong evaluation when planning and funding are being considered to make sure they are putting transportation dollars into locations that have not received the type of support they should have over the years. Fry said that from an economic perspective, along with moving people, goods and services, transportation needs to connect people to employment opportunities. There are many areas in the state that do not have easy transportation access to employment, said Fry. A key component of state transportation planning should be to make sure that those areas of the state, whether in an urban area or a rural area, have access to job hubs so that transportation service is much more targeted.

Closing comments

Fry said that the General Assembly session this year will be a session like no other due to the pandemic. He said people should be mindful that there is much uncertainty looking out over the 90-day session. Maintaining the health of state legislators will be vitally important so that many of the challenges discussed during the event can be addressed, said Fry. He also noted that the two presiding officers of the legislature were thrust into a difficult situation with a shortened legislative session last year as a result of the pandemic and now are in another difficult session with the ongoing challenges of the pandemic. He said a key for business leaders will be to remain resilient and to work more collaboratively than ever to ensure key issues are addressed in the legislative session.

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