Excerpt: Lots From a Little

For my money, Baltimore’s most innovative agency head is its parking director, Pete Little. We share much in common, including the same last name, mine in German, his in English, and a love for reading books about leadership and management. Pete’s favorite is Simon Sinek’s “Leaders Eat Last,” and when he calls himself a “servant leader,” he isn’t kidding. When I met him at parking authority headquarters for our interview, I found out that he had turned his spacious office into a break area for staff and taken a small desk in the corner of a back room, alongside employees far below him on the org chart. Ever fastidious (he organizes his sock drawer by type of sock), Pete says of the move, “The larger your office, the more crap you collect. Having a smaller space has forced me to simplify.”

One thing he will never get rid of is a picture he keeps at his desk of a young boy using crates to make his away across a big puddle. It reminds him that “if you are creative and persistent, there is always a way to get to where you want to be.” I’m sure it also reminds him of all he has done to turn a corrupt, incompetent parking operation into a customer friendly cash cow for the city. His story, including his use of the Innovation Fund, might change the minds of those who don’t think government can operate efficiently and with integrity.

Pete grew up on what he describes as a “small farm slash large vegetable garden” in southeastern Massachusetts, just west of where the Pilgrims landed on the Mayflower. He became interested in public affairs in part because of his father’s civic mindedness . His father served on a commission to protect cranberry bogs, built trails to help preserve wooded areas of the town, and started the local recycling program. Pete remembers spending many Saturdays at the recycling center, sorting glass bottles by color, stacking newspapers, and crushing cans with a device his father had invented.

After graduating from college, Pete entered Georgetown Law School, envisioning a career in international diplomacy. Struggling to pay tuition, he left after the first semester with the intention of earning some money and re-enrolling. He never went back, instead working his way up to be the manager of a sporting goods store.

The parking business was a fluke. Married with children and tiring of retail hours, Pete answered a blind ad for management. When he arrived for the interview and realized it was with a parking company, he was halfway out the door when the HR director grabbed him and offered him the job.

Pete was a Vice President overseeing the mid-Atlantic region for the nation’s largest parking operator when he was recruited to run Baltimore’s parking authority. He had plenty of reasons to say no. For starters, the authority had already gone through three directors in its first two years of existence, and the pay couldn’t match his private sector salary. Thankfully, he had more reasons to say yes. Less travel and a shorter commute meant he could coach his kids’ baseball and softball teams, and he still had the itch for public service.

It was quickly apparent that the parking authority needed a complete overhaul. Not only weren’t employees doing their jobs, they were giving away free parking to politicians, issuing no-bid contracts to friends, and stealing money for themselves. Overtime was out of control, the garages were dirty and dangerous, and vendors were threatening to walk away unless they got paid on time. When Pete tried to follow the line of accountability for this disaster, he found it went nowhere.

“I almost got fired in my first year,” he recalls. “Once I started weeding out the bad actors, their political friends came after me.” Pete survived by telling the authority board and City Hall leadership that he wasn’t a quitter, but would only stay if he could run the organization the right way. And boy, did he ever.

After shifting the authority’s mission from providing affordable parking to giving taxpayers the highest return on their investment, Pete methodically cleaned up the garages, upgraded meter technology, and put a capital improvement plan in place. His list of accomplishments is almost endless, but the bottom line sums it up: in 13 years, Pete has more than doubled garage income and quintupled meter income. More importantly to him, he has increased the availability of parking spots, which is a boon to the city’s economy.

With the garages and meters working well, Pete turned his attention next to surface parking lots. Over the years, the parking authority took on management of seven lots that other city agencies had more or less neglected. The lots were in sorry condition and generated paltry revenue. Pete saw a business opportunity and went to the Innovation Fund for a loan. In four years, the parking authority spent $235,000 to remove trash and debris, resurface and restripe lots, install fencing and lighting, upgrade signage, landscape, and modernize meters. The refurbished lots attracted dozens of new monthly contract parkers, even at a higher price point, and revenue more than doubled.

Something else happened that wasn’t expected. The lots changed from being eyesores that people avoided to community assets. Northeast Market, in the Middle East neighborhood not far from Johns Hopkins Hospital, had a reputation for nasty traffic and few parking options. The Innovation Fund project added capacity to a lot nearby and made parking easier and safer, much to the delight of the market’s merchants.

The Waverly neighborhood got a similar boost. Located a few miles north of downtown, Waverly started as an enclave of summer cottages for the city’s wealthy, but since the late sixties has struggled against white flight, crime and, in 2001, the demolition of nearby Memorial Stadium when the Ravens football team moved to new digs closer to the Inner Harbor. For its rebounding commercial district and popular farmers market, a more welcoming parking lot represented an opportunity. The local business association leveraged the parking authority’s investment to get grant funding for beautification and signage. According to Michelle Bond, a member of the farmers market board, “The parking lot renovation showed that something was going on here. Even simple things like painting new lines made people say ‘Wow! This is a place where I want to spend my time. This is a place where I want to spend my money’.”

For a short video about the parking authority’s Innovation Fund project, you can go to this link.