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Accountabilityby Fern Shen4:11 pmNov 11, 20210

Leader of group touted as community outreach by Downtown Partnership is paid by the Partnership

Popping up in recent months on social media, the Downtown Residents Advisory Network enthusiastically supports the billboard plan

Above: Flanked by Council President Nick Mosby and Mayor Brandon Scott, Downtown Partnership CEO Shelonda Stokes presents an award to Councilman Eric Costello. (Fern Shen)

The biggest names in local politics are slated to appear tonight at Downtown Partnership of Baltimore’s meet-and-greet:

Mayor Brandon Scott is scheduled to headline the event (though his appearance is not listed on his public schedule today).

Also on hand will be City Council President Nick Mosby and Comptroller Bill Henry, along with State Senator Antonio Hayes and other members of the city’s Annapolis delegation.

But the group co-hosting the affair is an obscure entity – Downtown Residents Advocacy Network.

DRAN does not appear to have a website or elected officers. It seems to exist only in the form of a Twitter account and a Facebook page, both created by local consultant Paul Sturm.

Also unclear is Sturm’s relationship to the Partnership. According to sources, he is being paid an unspecified amount of money by them.

This relationship is not disclosed on DRAN’s social media accounts or in op-eds that Sturm has authored, which only describe him as the group’s chairman.

Reached last week by The Brew, Sturm declined to discuss DRAN, saying he was busy, but never called back.

Asked today if he was being paid by the Downtown Partnership, Sturm answered, “My work for the Partnership has nothing to do with the Network.”

Setting up for tonight’s event, he said he was too busy to talk further.

Downtown Partnership’s spokesperson did not return calls seeking comment.

Residents Group Bypassed

The Partnership has been in the news because of controversy over the new digital billboard district it championed, which was swiftly approved by the City Council last month and almost immediately signed into law by Scott.

A hybrid public-private group, the Partnership is funded in part by an extra tax surcharge that commercial properties pay to fund cleaning, safety and other services.

The choice of DRAN to co-host tonight’s meeting has raised eyebrows because another group is generally regarded as the voice for downtown residents – the City Center Residents Association (CCRA).

Downtown residents association: We were blindsided by digital billboard plan (10/18/21)

• As Pittsburgh decides to dim, Baltimore prepares to light up (10/25/21)

Founded in 2017, it is the only group with elected leadership representing the growing contingent of apartment dwellers in the downtown business district.

A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, CCRA now has more than 500 people on its mailing list. Nearly 100 are signed up as voting members and the group has 307 followers on Facebook.

CCRA’s objection to the digital billboard district was an unusual step for the organization.

In the past, it has worked closely with the Downtown Partnership. Councilman Eric Costello, who sponsored the bill creating the new Area of Special Sign Control, sits on the CCRA’s board.

“We almost always are in total agreement with the Downtown Partnership and other folks,” CCRA Interim President Bill King told the Planning Commission last month, trying unsuccessfully to slow the special signage plan down.

“This is the first time we’ve ever come before a board like this on an issue.”

“Thank You, DPOB”

The Partnership on its website and Costello in remarks before the Planning Commission have both cited DRAN as an example of the kind of groups consulted as part of community outreach around the billboard plan.

And Sturm has certainly enthused about the billboard plan on the network’s Facebook page.

“Great to see forward-thinking from Baltimore leaders,” he commented on a post linking to a story about the plan. “Thank you Eric Costello and DPOB Baltimore!”

“I love Times Square as well as the electronic signs in Station North. Says to me these are vibrant urban spaces”  – Paul Sturm.

When other commenters began to decry the idea, calling digital signage “obtrusive and obnoxious” and “visual trash and light pollution,” Sturm pushed back.

“I love Times Square as well as the electronic signs in Station North,” he said. “Says to me these are vibrant urban spaces – which is the feeling I believe downtown needs to evoke as well.”

When David Plymyer wrote an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun criticizing the Partnership’s approach to reviving the CBD as outdated – and called out its use of “political muscle to fast track” the City Council bill – Sturm rose to the group’s defense.

“Framing the downtown landscape as ‘residents versus businesses’ does a disservice to everyone involved,” he chided.

The Partnership’s reaction to the op-ed was to block Plymyer, the retired attorney for Anne Arundel County, on Twitter.

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