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Are Baltimore's Green Initiatives More Than Just Talk?

Keith Losoya with Waste Neutral Group stands with his new work truck
Keith Losoya with Waste Neutral Group stands with his new work truck

When it comes to the green economy there've been a lot of promises. Baltimore will be cleaner, more efficient, and better prepared for a resource-scarce future while enjoying a host of new jobs. Mayor Sheila Dixon has embraced the potential of the green economy, launching her Cleaner Greener campaign while supporting the formation of the city's new Office of Sustainability. The questions, though, are how many of the green economy's promises will actually come true and, are there jobs in it for Baltimore residents?

A Green Wave

The most visible part of the Mayor's new plan is the Cleaner Greener campaign. Cleaner Greener, however, is not designed spur green technology or create jobs. It's an image and education plan for the city. Its goals are to encourage residents and organizations to do their part for a greener city, including promoting collaborations between individuals, organizations and businesses to make Baltimore cleaner and greener; educating the community about easy solutions that will boost the city's green profile; and recognizing leaders in this effort.

For its part, the city promises more frequent graffiti removal and park cleanup, better enforcement of sanitation codes, and the switch to one-plus-one trash and recycling collection.

Cheryl Casciani is Director of Community Investment at the Baltimore Community Foundation (BCF), one of the major sponsors of the Cleaner Greener initiative. Once the city announced its commitment, Casciani says, "the second part was to couple that media campaign with a lot of activities at the community level.

So, BCF was involved in educating the community in how to make the new plan work. A lot of our effort has been to make sure the neighborhood stuff on the ground matches the city's priorities. Cleaner Greener is about helping to make some behavior changes."

For instance, two weeks ago BCF, in partnership with the city and Constellation Energy Group, helped launch the Baltimore Neighborhood Energy Challenge (BNEC), in an attempt to motivate city residents to reduce their energy usage. BNEC is a nine-month pilot program designed to raise awareness, reduce residential energy use, stimulate demand for energy conservation services and teach lessons on how to motivate behavior change related to reducing residential energy use.

With $200,000 from Constellation the program depends on volunteer "Energy Captains" to reach out to members of their fellow neighbors in participating neighborhoods such as Park Heights Renaissance, Fulton Avenue in Sandtown, Banner/Middle East, Baybrook, Mt. Washington, Neighborhoods of Greater Lauraville, Reservoir Hill, Roland Park and Ten Hills. They will also help coordinate simple, energy-saving in-home improvements such as installing low-flow shower heads, faucet aerators, compact fluorescent light bulbs and carbon monoxide detectors.

So, Cleaner Greener represents smart government. Any large program will need public backing to succeed. "The government shouldn't be looking to get larger, it should be looking to do its job smarter," says Celeste Amato, director of the Cleaner Greener initiative. Reorganization at the Department of Public Works will allow the city to achieve these new goals without bloating themselves. In a city with a reputation for inefficiency, this savvy approach and smart harboring of resources is encouraging.

Where the Jobs Are?

The downside is that this doesn't provide many new jobs. According to Amato, the Department of Public Works budget continues to shrink. If the city's largest campaign isn't providing many new jobs, are there new jobs at all?

It's important to realize that the green economy isn't an entirely new economy.

"People think all of a sudden this whole new job sector will open up. That's not the case. What they're talking about is a transitioning of the workforce," says Keith Losoya, who is on the board of the Chesapeake Sustainable Business Alliance.

Green jobs are about the remaking of an old economy. In that regard it's no less important: Baltimore has a vested interest in training its blue collar work force to keep up with current technology. But transitioning painting crews across the city to low Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) paints doesn't do anything for those out of work.

Losoya is still optimistic. "There's definitely a growing sector that was spurred by sustainability and the green movement, and it's adding many new jobs."

Seeding the Job Market

Civic Works is at the center of this growth. An AmeriCorps program, Civic Works has been educating and training Baltimore residents since 1993. Now it's turned some of its work to environmental projects like Project Lightbulb, which trains workers to go into residencies and replace old light bulbs and educate residents about energy saving practices, and B'more Green. Sponsored in part by the Environmental Protection Agency's Brownfields program B'more Green trains unemployed Baltimore residents for work in the environmental cleanup and abatement fields.

"The Brownfields program can be seen as a model," John Mello, project supervisor says. "All this energy and talk about the green economy isn't idealistic, it can work." So far, B'more Green has placed 122 graduates in jobs. B'more Green hopes to continue ramping up operations. Interest from the city could be a good sign for this expansion. "It's too soon to say that x number of jobs have been created," Mello says. "I can say that I'm being asked to come and sit down and talk about how this can grow, where we were not offered those opportunities last year."

One of the meetings Mello attended was the first meeting of the green jobs coalition created by City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Though much of the action in the green economy seems to be talk, it also has the feel of a movement reaching a crucial tipping point. That can best be seen in the creation of the city's new Office of Sustainability. Their 132 page Sustainability Plan is, in the words of Casciani who also chaired the plan's creation, "almost like a plan to plan. It gives a little bit of a road map."

The potential captured in this plan and the the city's first baby steps towards green economy have to be followed up, and that means the city will have to put it's money, and its lawmaking, where it's mouth is.

In some cases, that necessary money may come from the feds. Over the next three years, 15.7 million dollars from the President's stimulus package will add to Baltimore's current Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). Not only will this money allow the WAP to upgrade much more of Baltimore's housing stock, but it will provide jobs too.

The city itself will hire ten employees as part of the expansion, said Ken Strong, Director of Energy Efficient Homes, who was recently brought on by the Baltimore Department of Housing to oversee WAP's expansion. The contractors that will work with the city will likely bring on 40 to 50 employees in the next few years. The weatherization auditors the city will employ and the new, entry level jobs in weatherization that the contractors will need filled are the kind of jobs proponents of the green economy have promised. 

Green Incentives

Baltimore city will also need its own spending and incentive programs. Paul Wittemann of Greenspring Energy said that they'd love to do more work in the city, but Baltimore County and Baltimore City are the only two areas in Maryland that don't offer tax incentives for solar panels. That means Greenspring finds much of its work in the counties that do offer those incentives. Greenspring would like to hire more people, too, but there's no program in the city that's training electricians to deal with solar panels.

Another idea is to require energy audits of houses when they're bought and sold, much the way the state requires vehicle inspections. B'more Green's John Mello is a fan of this idea. "More people would become auditors, which makes audits cheaper. I feel that would be one of the simplest and best ways to drive a lot of beneficial growth."

It's clear the green economy will never replace the large manufacturing and shipping businesses that left Baltimore years ago, but there are also signs that the flurry of talk about the green economy is more than just empty ideas. As organizations like Civic Works trains and businesses like Greenspring Energy strive to grow, the city is listening and planning. It's streamlining its own operations and seems ready to work smart and leverage good ideas into more opportunities and finally, jobs in a cleaner, greener new Baltimore.

Michael Cook is a freelance writer born and raised in Baltimore. He now lives in Federal Hill. He blogs about Baltimore's nightlife for Metromix in his blog: Booze and Old Bay (http://baltimore.metromix.com/home/blog/booze-and-old-bay/950751/content).
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