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Policy conference puts collaboration at the heart of economic growth

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(CAMBRIDGE, Md. – September 29, 2017) -- When a business conference starts with a session on how to serve the community, you know you’re in for something different.

The partners of TouchPoint Baltimore (pictured above, with MDCC CEO & President Christine Ross) got everyone’s attention talking not about profit and loss, but about how to build partnerships in underserved communities.

BGE CEO Calvin Butler recalled a phone call between himself and Whiting-Turner Contracting CEO Tim Regan in April 2015, days after Freddie Gray’s death. 

“I said, ‘Tim, we have an opportunity to do something,’” he told the ballroom full of attendees. “‘Whatever we do, we do it. We don’t bring in government or politicians. All we have to do is demonstrate to communities that we hear you and we want to help.’”

Butler and Regan worked with Thread’s Sarah Hemminger and the Center for Urban Families’ Joe Jones, and a year later, TouchPoint was born. With a mission to foster shared social capital across the region, TouchPoint creates a network of neighborhood-based collaboration centers funded entirely by private enterprise. TouchPoint’s first center opened in Mondawmin – where the post-Gray death unrest broke out – and works to create a community workforce pipeline.

Collaboration was the key message at the Maryland Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 Business Policy and Competitiveness Conference in Cambridge, Maryland, Thursday and Friday. Ways and reasons to work together abounded: advocating together and individually against onerous mandates like a revived HB 1, helping people understand anti-discrimination laws, staying safe from cyberattacks. The conference also highlighted the military’s economic impact on the state – everything from the economic output of the combined bases to hiring and supporting members of the National Guard. There were seven additional topics on the table.

Of course, advocacy was at the heart of the policy conference. In addition to tips and feedback from MDCC’s Government Affairs staff and legislators, there were clear calls to action on HB 1, which is poised for an attempted overturn of Gov. Larry Hogan’s May 2017 veto. The Chamber, a nonpartisan business advocacy organization, opposes HB 1 because it mandates unaffordable coverage that will force cutbacks in jobs and available hours, and comes with massive penalties for even minor bookkeeping infractions.

“This is an important issue to employers, it’s an important issue for employees, and it should not fall to partisan fights,” said the governor’s chief legislative officer, Christopher Shank, during a town hall session with representatives from the administration. 

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, in his opening greeting, highlighted the outcomes of collaboration for economic performance: Last year, jobs went up by 127,000. Unemployment dropped to 3.9 percent – the lowest rate in about a decade. The state went from 49th to 7th in economic performance in one business magazine, which Rutherford did not name.

“Thanks largely to you, that is the best economic turnaround in the union,” he told the crowd. “Our business community – not government programs or taxes – is the source of Maryland’s economic power.” 

But with so many jobs open and so many still looking for work, Shank told town hall session attendees that the state and the business community need to work together to help businesses connect with workers, and to help government agencies determine needs. 

Businesses need to come together to attract other business, too. MDCC Board Chair and KCI Technologies President Nate Beil told attendees businesses need to work with each other to convince e-commerce giant Amazon to build its so-called HQ2 in the state.

“We all have different interests that are sometimes diametrically opposed,” Beil said. “If anybody in this room wins, the state wins.”

Beil was speaking directly to the MDCC’s purpose as a convener and collaborator in the state, said its president and CEO after the event.

“We want what’s best for Maryland’s business community,” said Christine Ross.  “That means sometimes we have to set aside individual preferences and work together for what’s best for the state as a whole.” 

The conference closed with a reinforcing message from Freeman Hrabowski, Ph.D. The charismatic and effective president of UMBC had not been at the earlier sessions, but his message keyed in on the same topics: connecting the employers and workers of tomorrow, building skills, growing the economy, and understanding that geography doesn’t mean division.

“Our ability to build this economy will be dependent on our ability to understand each sector,” he told attendees. “It’s not about the Baltimore area, the DC area, the Eastern Shore – it’s about how we collaborate. 

“If DC is 35 minutes one way and Baltimore is 15 minutes the other way, it’s all the same place. We forget that.”

See highlights from the Maryland Business and Competitiveness Conference on Twitter by searching #MDCCBPCC17. Click on "latest" for the full thread.

(Photo: The partners of TouchPoint Baltimore, with MDCC CEO. L to R: Travis Cutler, CEO, BGE; Sarah Hemminger, CEO and Co-Founder, Thread; Tim Regan, CEO, Whiting-Turner Contracting Co.; Christine Ross, President & CEO, Maryland Chamber of Commerce; Joe Jones, Founder & CEO, Center for Urban Families) See more photos from the conference: