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Making Regionalism Work

Stephen Wantz and Don Fry
Provided by Baltimore Metropolitan Council
Stephen Wantz and Don Fry

Carroll County Commissioner Stephen Wantz and Don Fry, President & CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, discuss how public and private sector leaders are working together to promote a safe, connected, and competitive region.

The podcast is produced by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the council of local governments serving central Maryland, with assistance from WYPR.


Tom Hall: And welcome to the Chesapeake Connect Podcast. I'm Tom Hall. Chesapeake Connect is an annual learning trip that brings together leaders from around Baltimore to explore best practices and programs in a peer region. It's organized by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the council of governments serving Greater Baltimore. The council has organized trips to Cleveland, New Orleans and Nashville in recent years. Today on the Chesapeake Connect podcast, we're talking about regionalism. How are leaders working across jurisdictions to build a stronger Baltimore region? Steve Wantz is the chair of BMC's Board of Directors and a Carroll County commissioner. He's also been on all three Chesapeake Connect trips. Commissioner Wantz, welcome.

Steve Wantz: Thank you very much, Tom. And it is certainly a pleasure and an honor to be here.

Tom Hall: And Don Fry is here as well. He is the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, which is a sponsor of Chesapeake Connect. He's been on two Chesapeake Connect trips. Don Fry, welcome to you as well, sir.

Don Fry: Thank you, Tom. Greatly appreciate the opportunity.

Tom Hall: So Don, let's start with you, both the Baltimore Metropolitan Council and the Greater Baltimore Committee have missions that are grounded in the idea of regionalism. So what does regionalism mean to you and why do you think it matters here in Baltimore?

Don Fry: Well, regionalism is very important. In fact, the Greater Baltimore Committee started looking at regionalism back in the early 1990s, but became a regional organization prior to that, because initially, we had been strictly Baltimore City, but of course, as time went on and you sort of seeing the population grow in the suburbs, it became more important that regions are what drive the economy, not individual jurisdictions. That's not the way it was back in the '50s when a Baltimore City maybe had 900,000 residents and Howard County may have had 28,000. But regions are what drive the economy.

But if we look around, we see that regions that have a strong central core do better. And the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council for a number of years have done either a regional report where we compare our region to 19 other areas to see what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are. And I think the reality is why regionalism makes a difference differences that, geographic boundaries are strictly really artificial lines on a map. The programs, the challenges, the issues that exist to all of our jurisdictions, they cross boundary lines. So we all have the same issues, but we maybe have them to a different degree, and it's important for us to work together regionally so we can address those challenges.

Tom Hall: And Steve Wantz, you are the chair of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council Board Of Directors, And of course you serve as a county commissioner in Carroll County. What's your take on regionalism? What does it mean to you? And is it a driving force behind some of the work that you're doing?

Steve Wantz: So, thank you again, and it's certainly wonderful to be here and talk about the importance of regionalism and the importance of the BMC. Look, it's quite clear and it's been proven that if you look at things from a broader aspect, you can certainly be more efficient and be more effective. And it's interesting to me, we're here in Carroll County and I've had folks say to me, "Well, what does it matter what's happening in Howard County or what's happening in Baltimore City? Why is that so important?" And it's important because many of the decisions that we as elected leaders make, rely on working in a collaborative effort with our folks in other jurisdictions to see what they're doing, and that makes us stronger and helps us make a really good decisions as well.

It's interesting as I travel around, before COVID of course, hopefully we'll get back to that at some point. But when folks ask where you are in Maryland, and I say, "Well, I live in Carroll County and we're in the Westminster area," they'll kind of look at you and go, "Okay." But then you say Baltimore, and you tell them where you are in reference to where Baltimore is in the state, and then they start shaking their head and go, "Oh, okay. We've got it." So it's no mystery that Baltimore really drives the engine of the State of Maryland, and that's very important to remember. So anything that we can do to be in this together, to help one another and share ideas and get to a good common theme makes us all better. And I think that's really, really important. And I think that's probably the most important message that we can get when we're talking about the regional aspect here in the State of Maryland.

Tom Hall: And Don Fry, can you give us some examples of the kinds of local issues that you think most benefit from a regional approach?

Don Fry: Well, I think there's a number of them that would be of benefit. One that clearly comes to mind, and one I think that everyone in the region cares significantly about is transportation. We can't necessarily have effective transportation if we look at it strictly from a individual jurisdiction perspective, because people are moving back and forth between all the counties, whether for employment purposes or just for entertainment, or just life experiences. So that's a major issue, and I think that we've seen some great efforts moving forward from a regional perspective on transportation. The other one that I think really comes to mind is something that the Baltimore Metropolitan Council and the Greater Baltimore Committee have been engaged in, focuses on workforce.

A couple of years ago, the Baltimore Metropolitan Council did a family supporting jobs report that talked about what we need to do from a job's creation perspective. And then recently, the Greater Baltimore Committee did a report on looking at what are the growth sectors in the next 10 years, and those would be healthcare, business services, IT and construction. Now the reality is that all counties are going to benefit when we have strong businesses and strong industry sector. And a key to a successful business is workforce. So every jurisdiction sees that citizens going back and forth between jurisdictions. And it's important that we figure out how we work together so that all those jurisdictions can benefit by having a quality and the quantity of the workforce that we need to be successful moving forward. So I think that one is the one that hits me most now as an area we have great opportunity to work together collaboratively and see great success of both economically as well as from a job creation and a job retention perspective.

Tom Hall: And Commissioner Wantz, Don mentions the importance of workforce, transportation, those kinds of things. What strikes you as the issues or two that you think are particularly ripe for a real regional collaboration?

Steve Wantz: So, Don certainly hit the important ones. And it comes to light here in Carroll, because I can tell you while we've seen a huge uptick in our economic growth here in Carroll, we still have a lot of folks that travel outside of our area to go to those jobs in Baltimore City, in Baltimore County, and the surrounding jurisdictions. So, transportation is one of the most important ones. I do also believe, and of course with my background, everyone expects me to say this, and that certainly is the public safety aspect of looking at our region as well. Recently, the Baltimore Metropolitan Council put on their staff an emergency management position. And talk about beneficial, and talk about timely, because they did that prior to the pandemic that we are currently dealing with. But public safety, I believe is the number one priority for elected officials to ensure that our citizens are safe, ensure that our citizens can go from one jurisdiction to the other, ensure that they're able to get to their job and back, on the right roads, with the right folks that are protecting them. And I think that's really a huge aspect.

We're also looking right now, regionally, at a lot of the challenges that we have with broadband. And that also is an important factor because, not only does it affect us here in Carroll, it affects us all across the region. And certainly the fact that folks are working from home, or the school systems and in many jurisdictions have seen challenges, that internet, that broadband aspect of living is really, really important now. So, together, we've been working on that as well, and ensuring that we bring the best that we can to our citizens, to provide them with a higher quality of life there. So, that would be two of the other ones that I would add on. But again, transportation, I think Don hit it on the head. That's probably number one on the list.

Tom Hall: And Don, it's interesting that there's sometimes a disconnect between the rhetoric around regionalism and the actuality of regionalism. It's one thing, and it's kind of easy to say, we're stronger together and we should put self-interest aside for the greater good, but in reality, convincing governments and institutions to work across jurisdictional lines can really be a challenge sometimes. So, what are some of the barriers that you have faced, some of the examples perhaps of pushback you've heard against a regional approach?

Don Fry: Well, I'm not so sure necessarily that it's pushed back. Although, you heard the commissioner mentioned earlier that some people may ask him what differences that make to Carroll County as far as what's happening in his specific jurisdiction, so there's always that natural question. That sort of goes along with just politics in general. Other reality is, is that we do have different jurisdictions, although political structure is different in those jurisdictions, although five of them have a County executive form of government. Carroll County has a county commissioner's form of government. So the fact is that, each one of those they're elected for their own reasons of what they do inside their jurisdiction, not necessarily what they do from a regional perspective. We're fortunate though that we've got many elected officials who do care about it from a regional perspective like Commissioner Wantz does.

But the other part of it is that, each jurisdiction is different. It has its own different makeup, its own different constituency, its own different dynamics of what controls the agenda. And the other part of it is that because you're dealing with elected officials, and hoping that they're staying and purposely moving in regional direction, there is a transition that occurs through elections on a free and fairly frequent basis, and then you have to bring new people along that maybe did not really understand or embrace that concept. I think we're talking about partnership. And I was told a long time ago that partnerships are difficult because they require a collaboration and cooperation, and those are two unnatural human acts. So I think from that perspective, that's what makes some of the regionalism implementation more challenging than some would expect.

Tom Hall: Yeah, unnatural acts indeed. Commissioner Wantz, what's your perspective? I mean, from your point of view, as a county commissioner, and as Don Fry mentioned, it's a county commissioner form of government different from any of the other jurisdictions. Do your constituents care about regional goals and regional aspirations? Is it front of mind for them? Is it a tough sell? What do you think?

Steve Wantz: It can be at times, because look, there is loyalty to regions, and the electeds certainly have that loyalty to their regions. But one of the things that I am most impressed with my colleagues, and there are five commissioners here. So essentially, there are five county executives in Carroll, if you want to look at it like that. But it I'm impressed with the fact that all of them have embraced the fact that we really must work together in a regional approach in order to get things done in this area. And your question hits spot on with the importance of the Chesapeake Connect program, because that program that we get together with and bond together, does that very thing. It puts the electeds together in a venue that is typically not a meeting room or on a day as somewhere, where you can really reach down and say, "Okay, so you guys do it this way, we do it this way. Tell me why you do it that way, I'll tell you why we do it that way."

And many times when you enter into those discussions, you will really get some great ideas, and you'll actually influence one another on, "You know what? Gosh, that's a great idea the way you guys are doing that." So, it can be a little bit of a burden, but we are involved here in Carroll, the five commissioners in many of the regional departments and programs that are provided, and we make it a priority, and we actually talk about it, at most, every session about our experiences when we're working with our colleagues in the region. And when you do that, folks start nodding in a positive fashion and go, "You know what? There's great value to that, and we see that." So, it's very important. It can be challenging at times, but we really put an emphasis on it here.

Tom Hall: Yeah. And Don Fry, I think the commissioner makes a great point about the value of the networking and the idea sharing that goes on through the Chesapeake Connect trips and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. When it comes to the ideas and the issues that folks are talking about, what do you see as being at the forefront of the Greater Baltimore Committee's mission these days?

Don Fry: Well Tom, there's a number of matters that have risen to the top of our agenda. One obviously deals with racial equity and social justice, and a topic that is gained considerable focus and attention as need be. During the last year, it's one of our top priorities looking forward and seeing what we can do to assist businesses, to adapt and to be a more inclusive moving forward, that's something that's very important. We're not going to be the total change agents of this, but I think the business community does have a role to talk about the importance of racial equity and social justice in business, as well as in society. I mentioned workforce. So, we issued this report last November. So there's about 60 recommendations in this report. It's a regional report. It would benefit the entire region. I think you're going to see us spending a lot of time moving toward implementation of that workforce report and recommendations contained in it.

Transportation has always been a hallmark of the Greater Baltimore Committee, and I think there will be opportunities for us to advocate and also work toward a regional plan moving forward. And again, look forward to working with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council and the Commissioner Wantz and others on that issue, something that's very important because it's key to economic growth and job creation. If you can't move people, goods and services, that certainly affects your economic growth. And then the other one I think I would say that we've been focusing a fair amount is all of the different aspects dealing with the COVID pandemic and the impact that it's had on businesses. Not necessarily on reopening of businesses, which is clearly important, but how do we help them recover? And particularly, how do we help small and minority businesses? Because oftentimes, they don't have the luxury of having large staff or even large resources to help them. So what can we do to assist them to recover to where they were prior to the pandemic? And I think that's something that's critically important over the next year or 18 months.

Tom Hall: And Commissioner Wantz, over the past few decades, Carroll County has grown tremendously from a rural community to a suburban jurisdiction in ways it's starting to resemble its neighbors in Howard and Baltimore counties. What has that growth meant for Carroll County and for your relationship to the rest of the Baltimore metro region?

Steve Wantz: So, it means a lot, and it means that we are starting to see challenges that we really didn't recognize before. Infrastructure's one of the big ones, and you've heard Don talk about the importance of the transportation aspect that the BMC brings to the table. And as you get more people, you need better roads, you need bigger roads, and you need to be able to get folks from point A to point B. So, that is one of the primary aspects of ensuring that we provide those needs. Public safety is another one, and you see it. There's a struggle. And there are challenges with public safety, especially when it comes to law enforcement, we're, seeing an uptick in challenges there. And the aspect of being able to see what our colleagues are doing in the other jurisdictions. Gosh, that is so very important. Those two things I think are some of the biggest challenges that we're seeing.

And then, really, as we see the growth in our population here, you need to bring jobs to the area, so that folks have the opportunity if they don't want to travel, to be able to make a good living here in the place where they are, so that you get that aspect of live, work and play, that really comes in handy. So, with growth bring, brings challenges. And that's one of the great things that I see about the Baltimore Metropolitan Council and about groups like Don Fry's involved in with the Greater Baltimore. Relying on agencies and departments like that, really is beneficial for those of us that are seeing the challenges as we grow. And [inaudible 00:20:01] growth can be good. If it's managed correctly, if you've got good open space, and provide a great place like all of our jurisdictions are attempting to do, it's a win-win. Quality of life, that's very, very important to our citizens.

Tom Hall: Yeah. And Don Fry, before you took the reins at the GBC, you represented Harford County in the state legislature. What did that time teach you about the challenges of striking a balance between government and business needs, for example, as an elected official?

Don Fry: I think one of the things I learned was that both government elected officials and business executives certainly do care to make sure that are better and that we see best practices that are utilized. They don't necessarily fully appreciate the working of each other. I think obviously, as a former elected official, I think I can say that there was always a sense of urgency to solve a problem, but don't necessarily fully appreciate the actual workings of how a legislative action could impact a business operation. A large majority of legislators are not or have not been in managing a business and don't have that full appreciation of what's involved. At the same time, I think business leaders recognize the desire to find solutions, but if they see something's presented that doesn't fully appreciate the impact on their business, there's some resistance. So you need to overcome that resistance through communication and sharing of ideas.

One of the things that we created a number of years ago in Greater Baltimore Committee was a report called Gaining a Competitive Edge. And in that, we laid out what are sort of the eight key pillars for economic growth and job creation. So whenever we submit testimony to the legislature, we always reference how that particular bill either is consistent with, or inconsistent with, one of those key pillars for economic growth and job creation. I think that helps provide that bridge and fill that gap between legislators who want to do the right thing, but also don't necessarily fully appreciate it. And also business leaders who sometimes don't fully recognize the various challenges or pressures that are on elected officials. So it's clearly a balancing act, but with communication and education and understanding, you can really see both of them working together to find real solid solutions to problems that are presented.

Tom Hall: Yeah. And Steve Wantz, before you were elected to the Carroll County Commission, you spent 30 years with the Baltimore County Fire Department. How did that experience shape your approach to government and to serving as an elected official?

Steve Wantz: That question is so impactful of information that I could give to you. I'm going to date myself here real quickly. Back in 1976, I was a music major in college, and I stayed local here. And for some reason, there was always this emphasis to give back to your community and do something for your community. So, I joined a local volunteer fire department back in 1976, and really fell in love with what that did and what that means. And I say that because, typically, when someone calls 911 for either the fire department or police department, it's not because they're having a good day, it's probably because they're having a really, really bad day. And being able to work together with your peers, to help folks through a difficult time, to give back, to use problem-solving and common sense approach to fixing and helping folks, is one of the best things that I think you can get as a basis for becoming an elected official.

And I had the incredible opportunity to work in that field. I continue to this day, even though I don't have a whole lot of time for that. But it allowed me to get that base, if you will, of what it truly means to help folks in their time of need. And that has always been with me, it continues to be with me as I reach out and do constituent service, and I think that's really, really important. Remembering where your roots are, and remembering that base, using those values that were instilled in you to help folks and get them to a place that they feel better about themselves, and their quality of life goes up. So, it was a great experience.

Tom Hall: Well, that's well said. And I can't help but also comment, Commissioner Wantz, in 1976, I was a music major in college as well. So, here we are.

Don Fry: In 1976, I was listening to a lot of music in college.

Steve Wantz: So there you go. And Tom, to be very honest, my dream was to have a 300-person college band underneath of me, and didn't work. Now I've got, I don't know, how many constituents that are relying on me.

Tom Hall: You got a few more than 300, right? Well, dreams change and they could be malleable sometimes.

Steve Wantz: There you go.

Tom Hall: So Don Fry, through this pandemic, as we have all learned, some household, some jurisdictions have been able to weather the storm better than others. When we think about post-COVID rebuilding as a region, how can we address some of the inequities that the last 12 months have brought to the surface? You touched on this earlier, but let's expand on that a little bit more.

Don Fry: Well, I think there's a number of issues that have come to the forefront that we need to be paying attention to. Commissioner Wantz talked about one of them being, of course, the need for broadband expansion. We need to make sure that that's addressed. Because that's certainly affects everyone, not only from an educational perspective, but even a job perspective, either from just working from home, or even partially working from home, but also even finding employment moving forward. I don't think we know all of the problems, all of the inequities that exist, but I think the key is going to be for our elected officials. And I think that they certainly are moving in this direction to focus on those areas that may be, in particular, [inaudible 00:26:53] in their respective jurisdictions that have been disproportionately affected, whether it be just because of the income perspectives or whether it's transportation or location.

So how do we really help those people who have been inequitably affected by this COVID? I think this is going to require also just strong advocacy from everyone working together in collaboration to deal with the challenges. The challenges are likely the same in each jurisdiction. There's just a different magnitude of what that problem is throughout the region. And I think the commissioners by working with the commissioners and the county executives by working together, and working in collaboration with the BMC, and also with the groups like the Greater Baltimore Committee, we can find programs and initiatives to try to bring about some of the balancing to try to help people recover quicker than what may be if we're not entirely focused on the issues.

Tom Hall: And Commissioner Wantz, as I mentioned at the top of the show, you have been on all three of the Chesapeake Connect trips, what have they taught you about regionalism? And what do you think are some of the specific policies or programs that you've learned? The policies that have really stuck out to you.

Steve Wantz: Well, one of the great things that I have seen on these trips is the fact that, hands down, the impactful collaboration that we have seen with not only those of us that traveled together to these areas, but what we have taken from those that have changed Cleveland and New Orleans and Nashvilles of the world, and what they've brought to the table to get to a good place. I think that cooperation and collaboration as Don said previously, really, really priceless. And another thing that I like to always bring up is, the BMC does an incredible job on these trips to not only show the downtown areas, but get out into the surrounding jurisdictions, which is very important to me, and see what's happening, and see how the rural comes together with the suburban, and how they marry and how they make things happen together.

Really quick, the Cleveland trip, I will never forget the EDWINS experience. There's a restaurant there that provides a dining experience, and it's a not-for-profit model of training, housing and employing individuals returning from incarceration. I actually have in one of my municipalities here in Carroll, they're working on that very thing right now. And that's as a result of me talking about it, and they're looking at that. I think Don, he and I always talk about this when we get together. We were able to visit the New Orleans Police Department when we went to new Orleans and, and to see the great things that they did and are still doing to turn that city around. We weren't supposed to talk to the police chief in New Orleans at the time, but lo and behold, he came in and introduced himself and stayed the entire time with us during that three-hour session with them.

And then, lo and behold, what happened? He became the police commissioner in Baltimore City. So talk about bringing something from the programs, there is a perfect example. And then finally in Nashville, one of the things that I loved was... So there's a place called Bells Bend in Old School Farm. And that's outside of Nashville, and they actually do green space, and they do healthy communities, they provide sustainable jobs, with a sustainable farm. And that really is something that is happening in our jurisdictions here. Three great prime examples of the advantage and the great experiences that we have seen with the Chesapeake Connect program.

Tom Hall: Yeah, those are three really great examples. And Don Fry, let's give you the last word with the same question. You have been on two of the Chesapeake Connect trips, what are some of the things that impressed you on those trips? And what are other areas doing about regionalism that can be instructive to us here in this region?

Don Fry: Well, the Greater Baltimore committee has been a proud and honored to be a sponsor of the Chesapeake Connect. And I think Baltimore Metropolitan Council has done a great job as commissioner mentioned and organizing those and bringing people together. I think that's one of the things that I learned more than anything else, not exactly whether a program or a policy, but the fact that there's people throughout the Baltimore region who really do care about regionalism and want to see things work together. Commissioner Wantz talked about the New Orleans police Department and the conversations we had there, but we learned so much there about all the infrastructure changes that had to occur after Hurricane Katrina, and the impact that it had on New Orleans. And actually from a personal note, Commissioner Wantz and I ended up sitting in by side on the flight back from New Orleans, and I had a great opportunity to learn about each other and how we agreed with many issues, even though we probably did not have a chance to talk that much.

But the other issues I think that really came to mind, and I think we saw it in Nashville, was about how a region can come together and have a united message about what its goals or missions are within that region. It's not easy, but it can be done. And if you work hard, you can find common ground to address those challenges that are out there and you can do so in a way that everybody can work together, and it can be sustainable and beneficial for your region. So I think even that's sort of a messaging point is something that we learned that sometimes you think, "Well, it's tough to come up with one common theme." It is difficult, but at the same time it can be done, and I think that's a good positive message to take from these trips.

Tom Hall: Yeah, no doubt that the work of the BMC and these Chesapeake Connect trips, very valuable in so many ways. That's Don Fry, he is the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, which is a sponsor of Chesapeake Connect. Mr. Fry, always a pleasure. Thank you.

Don Fry: Thank you. My pleasure.

Tom Hall: Carroll County Commissioner, Steve Wantz, is the chair of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council's Board of Directors. Thank you for joining us as well, sir. Appreciate it.

Steve Wantz: Tom, Thank you. It's good to hear about your music background, and I wish everyone to be safe and utilize best practices as we get through this pandemic. It's been an honor. Thank you gentlemen.

Tom Hall: And we wish the same for you. The Chesapeake Connect podcast is produced by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council with assistance from WYPR. The Baltimore Metropolitan council works collaboratively with our region's elected executives to identify mutual interests and develop collaborative strategies, plans, and programs that improve our quality of life and economic vitality. BMC's member jurisdictions include Baltimore city and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Hartford, Howard, and Queen Anne's counties. For more information, please visit baltometro.org. Our producer is Mark Gunnery. On our next episode of the Chesapeake Connect Podcast, I'll talk to Howard County Executive Calvin Ball and Aaron Tomarchio, the senior vice president of corporate affairs at Tradepoint Atlantic, about the region's evolving economy from the port to the high tech sector. Until then, I'm Tom hall. Thanks for connecting.

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