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What Is Chesapeake Connect?

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The first episode of The Chesapeake Connect Podcast features Mike Kelly, Executive Director of Baltimore Metropolitan Council, John A. Olszewski, Jr., Baltimore County Executive, and Scot Spencer, Associate Director of Local Policy for Annie E. Casey Foundation. Our guests reflect on their experiences as participants on the Chesapeake Connect program, an annual learning trip that brings together regional leaders to take an unvarnished look at a peer region.

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

Transcript

Tom Hall: Welcome to Chesapeake Connect. I'm Tom Hall. This is the premier episode of a special limited run podcast that the Baltimore Metropolitan Council is producing with assistance from WYPR. Joining us to give an introduction to Chesapeake Connect is Mike Kelly. Mike is the Baltimore Metropolitan Council's executive director. Mike, welcome to the pod.

Mike Kelly: Hey Tom, thank you for having me.

Tom Hall: So let's start with the basics. What is the Baltimore Metropolitan Council?

Mike Kelly: So the Baltimore Metropolitan Council is the regional council of governments that serves central Maryland. And essentially we help all more city and the surrounding jurisdictions cooperate on a range of policy issues, everything from transportation planning, to buying goods and services, like road salt, anything we can do to help the jurisdictions work together, work more efficiently and think across jurisdictional lines for all the residents of the Baltimore region.

Tom Hall: And one of the things that Baltimore Metropolitan Council does every year is you organize something called Chesapeake Connect. That's the name of this podcast, but it's also something else. What is Chesapeake Connect?

Mike Kelly: So Chesapeake Connect, it's a special program that we run where every year we try and take between 60 and 70 leaders from across the region of business people, nonprofit leaders, folks from higher education and the elected officials who sit on our board of directors. When we take them to another city, we take them to another region for three days to sort of immerse ourselves in things going on there, try and learn some lessons that we can bring home and to try and forge important relationships for folks who live here in our own region that can benefit everybody when we get back.

Tom Hall: And give us some examples. What cities have you visited with Chesapeake Connect, for example? And what are some of the things that you've done when you go and you take these folks on these trips?

Mike Kelly: So we've had three of these trips so far. The cities that we visited were Cleveland, Ohio, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Nashville, Tennessee. And we go to these places for three days and we try and see a range of things. In Cleveland, we wrote on a bus rapid transit system called the Health Line, which connects downtown Cleveland to the major medical institutions and their university areas. In New Orleans, we got a tour of how they're redeveloping their entire water system post-Katrina to sort of benefit the city, make it safer, but also improve quality of life for all their residents. And in Nashville, we sort of got a firsthand look at the way the city's rebranded itself Music City, and how they're using tourism and how they're using that economy and their creative class to drive the economy and grow themselves from a population standpoint, as well as economically. It's really an interesting experience for everybody involved.

Tom Hall: And how do you choose the cities? Where do you decide you want to go? Do you try to find places that are directly analogous to the Baltimore Metropolitan region?

Mike Kelly: So we work with our board of directors, and specifically whichever elected official is our chair that year, and we try and find a place that offers some interesting conversations, that offer some interesting things to see. That doesn't necessarily have to be totally analogous to Baltimore. This is about seeing new things. This is about seeing how different places operate. It's not about seeing the same old, same old. So we really try and find some place that has something interesting to see, something interesting to learn about, and some great experiences for our team.

Tom Hall: And of course, the pandemic has meant that you've had to approach Chesapeake Connect very differently this year, thus this podcast, because travel is not possible in the age of COVID at the moment. So what's the idea behind the Chesapeake Connect Podcast? What should our listeners expect in these next nine episodes?

Mike Kelly: Well, what we've tried to do is take the elected officials on our board. And our board is the mayor of Baltimore, the County Executives from surrounding jurisdictions, as well as a Member of the State Senate, the State House of Delegates and Appointee of the Governors from the business community. We're going to pair our board members with somebody who's been on one of the trips to talk about an issue of regional importance here in Baltimore. We're going to try and essentially think of the things that we would show off if another city came to see us, and think of some of the discussions that they'd want to have, and try and share it in the best format we can right now.

Tom Hall: And a lot of people talk about the importance of regional cooperation. You hear about it in campaigns when folks are running for office, you hear about it from the policy community. But this really sounds like that's at the core of your mission, getting folks in the area to think regionally and not just about their own jurisdiction. Do I have that right?

Mike Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. People's lives don't stop at political boundaries, at jurisdictional lines. We all interact all over the region every single day, whether we realize it or not. It's important that our relationships are the same way, that it's not the city against the counties. It's not the counties and the counties. It's really important for everyone to realize that when we all do better, we all do better. And that's sort of the core of what we're trying to do with the relationship building part of Chesapeake Connect.

Tom Hall: Mike Kelly is the executive director of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. Mike, I'm looking forward to hearing from the members of your board and others about the work that you're doing here on the Chesapeake Connect Podcast. Thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Mike Kelly: Thank you, Tom.

Tom Hall: And we turn now to two who have been on several Chesapeake Connect trips over the years, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for your time.

John A. Olszewski, Jr.: Always a pleasure, Tom. Thanks for having me on.

Tom Hall: And Scot Spencer joins us as well. He is the associate director of local policy for the Annie E. Casey foundation. Annie E. Casey foundation has supported Chesapeake Connect since their first trip back in 2017. Scott Spencer, welcome. Good to talk to you as well.

Scot Spencer: Hi, Tom. Thanks very much for having me.

Tom Hall: So Mr. County Executive, we'll start with you. You have been a member of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council on their board since 2018. You've served as the board chair last year. What do you think that elected officials and business leaders get when they take these trips, these Chesapeake Connect trips?

John A. Olszewski, Jr.: Yeah. As leaders, whether we are in government or business or the philanthropic communities, we want to build programs that are designed around the Baltimore area. And Mike Kelly and the entire BMC team really done a thoughtful job of designing a schedule and a program that builds these trips around the idea of how do we build a stronger Baltimore region. It parallels a lot of the work that we're doing in our respective roles. And I think there's an element of these trips that resonates with all of us. There are very tangible takeaways in terms of what we do. In the case of our most recent trip to Nashville, for example, we focused on thinking through a regional tourism strategy. We created linkages between the counties and the city, whether that's improved transit or bike trails, and really thought about developing and implementing community revitalization efforts. So there's a lot of very practical value as we embark on these trips together.

Tom Hall: And Scot Spencer, talk a little bit about the programming on these Chesapeake Connect trips. Mike Kelly told us that folks are usually there for just a few days. How do you ensure that participants get, as full as possible, a taste of each city given the limited time that they're there?

Scot Spencer: Well, Mike and his team do a really good job of filling up the time with opportunities to visit nonprofit organizations that are doing work in the community, the opportunity to visit with other elected leaders, police officials if we're talking about strategies around public safety. When we went to New Orleans, we got to do a visit around the waterfront and the issues confronting water and how to manage with water and live with water in the community. So what they do is really tried to assemble the best of the place that we're going to, that then reflects back on some of the very issues that we're trying to grapple with within the Baltimore region.

Tom Hall: And County Executive Olszewski, you went on the Chesapeake Connect trip to Nashville back in 2019. What do you recall as some of the highlights of that trip? And what were you able to learn? What did you find that you could directly apply from that trip? What were you able to learn about the Baltimore region through that visit to Nashville?

John A. Olszewski, Jr.: Sure. I think the first and probably the most important thing that we do is we actually get these leaders together and we forge deepened relationships among leaders from Baltimore who are together in other cities. And so, whether it was even before I took office, my deputy administrative officer, Drew Vetter, was on that New Orleans trip as we were transitioning in. And he forged a relationship with Melissa Hyatt, who at the time was still the head of security at Hopkins, but most recently was confirmed as our 14th police chief and the first female to hold that position. I got to know Shanaysha Sauls better from the Baltimore Community Foundation, which led to a partnership in our response to COVID by standing up a grant program.

But in terms of the actual programming, we are reminded that Baltimore has issues, and the region's issues are not unique to just our city and our region. Nashville, for example, highlighted some challenges with affordable housing, disjointed transit system, but it also drove home important lessons, the importance of civic pride, strengthening workforce development opportunities, community planning. These are very similar to a lot of the strengths and opportunities that we face here in the Baltimore region.

For me as Baltimore County Executive, the trip was very timely. But going to Music City USA, and then coming home and understanding that arts and culture value as we finalize Music City, Maryland, and Baltimore County's first A and E designation in Catonsville. So whether it's healthcare or hospitality, we also get to engage with our peers in those other states and cities and regions, and can learn from them to bring those lessons back, again, with that reinforced relationship that we have with those other professionals in the Baltimore area.

Tom Hall: And Scot Spencer, you went on the trips to Cleveland and to New Orleans. So what do you think Baltimore has in common with those places? You mentioned some talk about water, for example, with New Orleans. But how did you personally reflect on Baltimore's strengths and challenges having visited Cleveland and New Orleans with the Chesapeake Connect program?

Scot Spencer: I'm fortunate that I get to go to those cities and work with those cities pretty often, but in Cleveland and instance, we are both cities that had a very strong industrial past in history, and have been working through that transition from an older industrial economy to a newer economy, one that needs to be much more diverse in its economic opportunity for folks. One that is also grappling with the issues of racial diversity and really trying to make sure that there's opportunity for all the folks in the region.

We had a particular visit, and one that that I think is most memorable for me in Cleveland, which was the visit to Edwin's. It's actually a school, but a French style restaurant, and providing opportunities for people returning from prison to gain both the culinary, but also the back of a restaurant, but also the front of restaurants skills. So it is not just a job opportunity for folks, but it's a career building academy for people. But it also happens to teach them the fine art of fine dining and service.

And what that reflects back to us in Baltimore is we're working with a population of folks who are also coming out of those types of situations, and how can we build the best range of opportunities for the people in our communities? So we can go to a place like Cleveland, we can go to a place like New Orleans. We can see what they're doing. We can compare and contrast what we're doing. And in certain cases, we can take kernels of those ideas and build upon them. Or even better, there are those occasions where we come back and we're saying, "I didn't know that Baltimore was doing it so good, but we're doing pretty darn well ourselves." And it is also a civic booster for ourselves, an element of civic pride that comes about when you see that we're actually doing work that is comparable or better than some of our colleagues in other places.

Tom Hall: Yeah. That's important, to be reminded of the things that are in fact working well and going well. And Johnny Olszewski Jr., there's nothing like a model, a real live blood and guts model of things that are working well. Scot just mentioned the example of this restaurant that is working with returning citizens, and it's one thing to plan it sort of in the abstract, but it's another thing to see it actually work. Obviously every city and region has its own challenges. How do you talk about the challenges that Baltimore County faces or the Baltimore region faces on these trips? And what do you think you can learn from hearing about what isn't working in other cities?

John A. Olszewski, Jr.: Learning about what wasn't working in other cities was almost as insightful as learning about what was working. And so, we take both of those lessons back with us because I think our opportunities both for pitfalls to avoid, but also to have those things about the Baltimore region that we can and should be celebrating.

I really think that the trip is helpful in that we sort of force ourselves into all of these different spaces. There are these great breakout groups, smaller cohorts, where we go to different sites, learn from the leaders and the stakeholders on the ground. We do have that interaction with the leaders in those respective areas. And then we take that back internally, both that small group and the larger group.

For me in Nashville, it was visiting an incubator, checking out some local food, getting some hot chicken. But really, having that exchange, both peer to peer, from city to city, and region to region, but then also coming back and challenging ourselves about what do we have to sustain and where can we be better? Knowing, again, as you pointed out, Tom, that so many other places have their own challenges, even when they're doing a lot of other things good, there are places where they want to be better, and they're eager to learn from us as well.

Tom Hall: And Scot Spencer, your organization, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, provides scholarship funding for emerging leaders, as well as leaders of smaller organizations so that they can participate in the Chesapeake Connect trips. What are the experiences like for those folks, especially leaders from traditionally marginalized communities? That's got to be a really good and important opportunity for folks.

Scot Spencer: To pick up something on what the County Exec was saying earlier, one of the opportunities that comes from this trip and from these visits is that you get to engage with people that you normally wouldn't with in a way that you normally wouldn't do it when you're back home. When we're traveling and you're out of town and you're looking at other work and other experiences, this is not a compare and contrast of Baltimore city to Baltimore County to something else. So the barriers sort of break down and become a little bit more of a congenial, collegial environment that is built in those three days. And it's amazing that it does happen that much in those three days.

But from our purposes, I think it is valuable for us to bring a diversity of people from the region, a diversity of voices. Those folks who will then link arms, or in some times confront and challenge the conventional wisdom that we're working within our region to really help us to move better, to think better, to do better, and really to push us toward sort of a larger set of outcomes for the people in the communities that we all care about.

Tom Hall: And County Executive, when folks come back home, can you think of some examples of specific lessons, specific experiences that people have had that they've learned on these trips that is directly applicable to how they're approaching their work here in the Baltimore region? You mentioned meeting Melissa Hyatt, Shanaysha Sauls, getting those personal relationships, which of course have borne fruit in any number of ways. But in terms of your own experience and the experience of your fellow board members, can you point to specific examples where you can see the effects and the [inaudible] that has been gained on these trips directly informing their work here back home?

John A. Olszewski, Jr.: I would say in addition to the examples that you just shared again, on the A and E and the arts and entertainment implementation ideas, there was Guinness leadership on the trip who we connected with the Baltimore County Arts Guild, who's helping to lead that implementation effort on creating a robust arts culture over in the Catonsville community. We also ended up hiring a firm to lead anchor work, understanding the importance of anchor institutions and the roles that hospitals and national play. And recognizing that in Baltimore County, we have an incredible strength of networks from our universities and our hospitals to County government, and sort of thinking more deeply and thoughtfully about how we connect those pieces to further advance the economic opportunity transportation efforts here at home. So, absolutely, not only are there the personal connections that bear fruit, but I think sort of beyond that, taking the ideas back to the community and implementing them in ways that benefit all of us.

Tom Hall: So Scot Spencer, it seems like Chesapeake Connect trips really make it a point to look at a wide range of issues. They want to cover the waterfront, do a broad spectrum of things that are going on in these individual cities, so that you can bring them back and bring a wide range of experiences back to the Baltimore region. It seems that the breadth and depth of what you're talking about on these trips is one of the great things to recommend it.

Scot Spencer: Chesapeake Connect really built out of this work that was going on several years ago around the opportunity collaborative, which looked at, how do we create a stronger regional economy so that everyone in the ball more reached and can thrive? And when you start looking at those range of issues, challenges, and opportunities and partners and connections that need to be made and tackled in order to move this work forward. So the construction of the Chesapeake Connects program time and again looks at the range of issues that are as diverse as the communities in every County in Baltimore city in our region, in a way that, one, bring people together or [inaudible] at how, in one sense, they may work to resolution in their own backyard, but also how can the diverse communities within the region combine their efforts to really try to create a greater whole for the Baltimore region. And so, I think what these visits do is to give that opportunity for both individual learning, collective learning on the range of issues that impact in our region.

Tom Hall: Would you say that these trips do help participants see things beyond their normal lanes or silos? Do you think it really does expand the horizons of how people approach problems, how people process successes and failures that are happening around the country?

Scot Spencer: Listening to Johnny, you can hear exactly what the benefits have been of Chesapeake Connects. He reflected back on the connections made, the lessons learned, the lessons that they brought home and how they implemented them. Time and again, we can see that a program like Chesapeake Connects is worth the three days away. It is worth the investment in supporting a wide range of backgrounds and voices and faces that come into the work and come into that opportunity. And really how do we then spring forward? And I think that's the work that continues to go on within BMC and within the community, is how do we take that energy that is generated from the first meeting in those three days away to bring it back and make it real in our backyards?

Tom Hall: Scot Spencer is the associate director of local policy for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a supporter of Chesapeake Connect and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. Scot, thank you so much for your time. Always great to talk to you. Appreciate it.

Scot Spencer: You as well, Tom. Thank you.

Tom Hall: And Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr, thank you as well for joining us today. I very much appreciate it and look forward to next time our paths will cross.

John A. Olszewski, Jr.: Looking forward to it. Always a pleasure. Thanks.

Tom Hall: And thank you for listening to Chesapeake Connect. We'll have nine more episodes of this series where we'll look into everything from the changing economy and police reform, to rebranding Baltimore and the regional importance of the Preakness. Next time on Chesapeake Connect, a conversation about leading during COVID-19 with Shanaysha Sauls. She's the president and CEO of the Baltimore Community Foundation, and Maryland state Senate President Bill Ferguson. Chesapeake Connect is a production of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council with assistance from WIPR. Our producer is Mark Gunnery. I'm Tom Hall. Thanks for listening.

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