Friday, February 1, 2008

New entity to promote city development

By Mary E. O’Leary
Register Topics Editor
— Michele Whelley, a business strategist with 20 years experience in the Baltimore/Washington area, has been chosen to head up a new Economic Development Corp. that will foster private-public partnerships to boost business growth.
The corporation, a common development tool in most cities, is being underwritten with a five-year commitment of $1.6 million annually from Yale University, which the corporation will use to leverage more funds.
It will be led by a 13-member board of directors headed by David Silverstone, chief executive officer at the South Central Regional Water Authority and chairman of the Science Park Development Corp., which is somewhat of a model for the new entity, although it will have a much larger public mission.
"This really provides a bridge between the business development community and city government and that bridge is critical," said Silverstone.
Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said in a city with a grand list handicapped with 43 percent tax-exempt property and where state PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) checks will drop next year, the need for more tax-producing development is "self-evident."
The mayor said the grand list, which the city will release next week, only increased by 1.7 percent from last year.
DeStefano said the corporation will be charged with reaching out to businesses to encourage growth and retention, while networking to attract new businesses and develop business corridors in city neighborhoods.
"Oftentimes, keeping what we have is just as important," DeStefano said.
"A lot of this is preventative," said Economic Development Administrator Kelly Murphy.
One early project could be taking on brownfield reclamation, which could help speed up River Street development, DeStefano said.
Whelley, shown above, was most recently senior vice president of Colliers Pinkard, a full service real estate firm and affiliate of Colliers International. Previously she was president of Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a business advocacy organization.
Like other development ventures in the city, this also has a Bruce Alexander connection. Alexander, vice president and director of the Office of New Haven and State Affairs at Yale University, contacted Whelley last summer on the nascent corporation and her possible interest in heading it.
Alexander, a former executive with the Rouse Co., which built Harborplace in Baltimore, served as a mayoral appointment to the Baltimore Development Corp. when Whelley was its executive vice president.
"Yale University is part of this community, and we want to see it prosper. The community needs jobs and a strong tax base to do that, and we hope the new Development Corporation will play a big role in growing the New Haven economy," Alexander said.
With a start-up staff of three or four, topping out at nine, the corporation doubles the city’s five-person Economic Development Office with which it will work in tandem in attracting businesses and shepherding projects.
While a quasi-public, federally tax-exempt 501(c)(3) corporation, DeStefano said it would be subject to state freedom of information inquiries. "We wanted to make it transparent," DeStefano said.
All regulatory functions will continue to rest with the City Plan Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals, while the Development Commission would continue to implement municipal development projects adopted by the Board of Aldermen.
It will not have powers of eminent domain, such as the development corporation in New London, where the city’s taking of private property to further a commercial development ended in a landmark Supreme Court case on that issue.
The 13-member board is expected to have a representative from the Board of Aldermen in addition to the mayor, City Plan Director Karyn Gilvarg, Murphy and Alexander, as well as other institutional and business representatives.
Whelley said coming to New Haven was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. She said she sees her function as reaching out to network with local business leaders and to pull "stakeholders together" on any given project.
She said when she came to the city to interview for the position, her question was: "Why aren’t you telling the world what you do here?"
She said Yale University is clearly the economic engine for the city, but she plans to look beyond the obvious clinical offices and biotech businesses for new growth.
Whelley said with the right synergy among businesses leaders, these chief executive officers become the ambassadors for growth. "Frankly, that’s how you increase staff," Whelley said.
In one of her recent jobs, Whelley was responsible for development of a 109-block section of downtown Baltimore and as a consultant, she worked to improve relations between Johns Hopkins medical complex and its neighbors.
Scheduled to begin work here on March 31, Whelley is looking for housing in New Haven.
Mary E. O’Leary can be reached at 789-5731 or

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