The Port Covington circus continues.

I swore that I was done writing about the circus atmosphere surrounding Baltimore’s review of the proposed tax increment financing (TIF) of public infrastructure necessary for the redevelopment of Port Covington by Sagamore Development.  Sagamore is the private real estate firm owned by Kevin Plank, the founder of Under Armour.  I wrote a letter to the Daily Record followed by one to the Baltimore Sun expressing my opinion on the community benefit, profit-sharing and project labor agreements and affordable housing set-asides being demanded by various community and special interest groups.

An article in Friday’s Sun, however, caused me to reconsider.  The article discussed the importance of Under Armour’s commitment to remain in Baltimore and the unease expressed by some officials and business leaders about the ongoing negotiations over the TIF.  At least one of the community groups, however, seems undaunted by such concerns.

BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) is an advocacy group seeking an expanded community benefit agreement and increased affordable housing set-asides as part of the Port Covington project.  Rev. Glenna Huber, co-chair of BUILD, made the following statement:  “Mr. Plank has said that he’s committed to Baltimore City, so we are working under that assumption.  When you’re coming to the city asking for that much public funding, then the city’s in a position of power, so why does the city not act from a position of power.”

In other words BUILD thinks it is okay to exploit Plank’s proven loyalty to his home state and its largest city in order to squeeze from him whatever it can over and above that which is reasonably required from Plank under the TIF itself?  It is an asinine position to take.

Of course the problem is not so much the attitude of Rev. Huber and BUILD, it is the attitude of the city council as represented by Council President Jack Young, Councilman Carl Stokes, chairman of the committee vetting the TIF, and veteran Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke.  They have told Sagamore that Sagamore has to reach agreement with the community groups before the council will approve the TIF.  No wonder BUILD believes that it is holding all the cards.

It is an absolute abdication of leadership and an abandonment of the proper role of the city.  The city council has for all practical purposes surrendered the power to approve the proposed TIF to citizen groups intent on pursuing their own particular interests, which may or may not correspond to the greater needs of the city.  Also, these private organizations are not constrained by the limits of regulatory authority applicable to the city, giving the process the Third World quality to which I referred in my letter to the Sun.

Having worked with many of them over the years I do not have a naïve point of view about developers.  Let’s just say that some developers are a lot more reasonable and responsible than others.  I’ve seen developers vilified in public hearings on numerous occasions, sometimes because they deserved it, but generally the public officials at such hearings do their best to stay above the fray and guide the discussion in an orderly and productive manner rather than play to the mood of the crowd.  Not in this case.

Stokes set the tone of a recent public hearing on the proposed TIF that he chaired by admonishing Sagamore that the city would not use public funds to pay for a “segregated community.”  One participant, Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, was thrown out of the meeting for accusing the Sagamore representatives at the hearing of racism.

A  lawyer for Sagamore pushed backed against what he referred to as the “snarkiness” of comments by another participant, Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, who said that Sagamore wanted to build a “wealthy enclave.”  The lawyer told Rev. Connors that “we’re not your enemy.”  He obviously felt like one at the time, and for good reason.  Developers and their lawyers tend to have thick skins, but who wants to listen to a city official imply that you are interested in building a “segregated community,” especially when you think that you are doing something good for a city that is a bit down on its luck?

If Sagamore officials have grown frustrated, it is easy to see why.  BUILD states that it endorses a community benefit agreement that Sagamore signed last month with six community associations calling for an investment of $39 million in educational, housing and job programs in South Baltimore neighborhoods as the Port Covington project is developed over the next 30 years.

BUILD however, says that is not enough.  It wants another agreement, one that expands the community benefits agreement citywide “because of the size of the TIF request.”  Whether Sagamore is being deliberately whipsawed or whether the demands coming from multiple directions are simply a product of the free-for-all encouraged by the city, the effect on Sagamore is the same.  It cannot be sure of when a done deal is actually a done deal.

My guess, or at least my hope, is that things will work themselves out and in the end everyone will pat themselves on the back for a job well done.  Maybe members of the council will come to their senses and get this process back under control.  In any event, the lesson that will be learned is that if you want to help redevelop Baltimore you need to either have an unshakable devotion to the city or be slightly crazy.

August 30, 2016

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