Glen Burnie's urban renewal mentor is poised to jump from his backyard ring into a statewide arena.
After five years of guiding efforts to bring more commercial life to downtown Glen Burnie, Victor A. Sulin soon will be focusing on the future of development in Maryland.
The freshman delegate from District 32 expects a sweeping plan aimed at slowing suburban sprawl to top the agenda when the General Assembly reconvenes Jan. 9. He called the proposed 2020 bill, designed to channel growth for the next 30 years, "obviously a critical issue, especially in North County, where we're seeing the last pockets of land be developed."
Sulin, who was appointed to the urban renewal director post by former County Executive O. James Lighthizer, plans to take an unpaid leave-of-absence while serving in the House. The 48-year-old former prosecutor ran unopposed for the District 32 seat.
Although he hopes to return to his office when the session ends, Sulin might no longer have a job. The fate of the nearly completed $20 million revitalization program appears increasingly uncertain, jeopardized by a slumping economy and county belt-tightening.
"I would suspect that the new executive will take a long, hard look at any projects that involve development," Sulin acknowledged. "I would be very surprised if he didn't either seek to pare them back, or combine them with other development."
To save Anne Arundel's $17 million budget surplus, County Executive Robert R. Neall imposed a hiring freeze shortly after taking office. He also has asked department heads to develop no-growth budgets for next year.
The county spends little on the two-man urban renewal office, except for the annual $350,000 to $400,000 capital budget, Sulin said. Since North Arundel Plaza, a strip shopping and office center that houses O'Toole's Road House Restaurant, was built in 1986, most of the capital budget has been earmarked for projects such as new sidewalks and water lines.
Sulin and his assistant, Glenn Mathiesen, spend more time fielding complaints about blocked sewers and deteriorating roads than drafting development plans these days. But Sulin wants to cap off the urban renewal effort by creating a "superblock" in the heart of Glen Burnie before he closes shop.
Local officials originally envisioned transforming the 5.6-acre tract behind the Arundel Center North into a mini-Georgetown. But after the first upscale restaurant closed and a deal with a Fortune 500 company fell through, the site became a parking lot instead of the cornerstone to revitalization.
Asked whether he expects to push the long-stalled superblock into gear, Sulin said: "Realistically, I'm going to hedge on the answer. I think it will depend on the depths of the recession. It would be more unrealistic if the recession got worse."
Sulin's quest to complete the superblock has the support of freshman County Councilman Edward Middlebrooks, D-Severn. While campaigning for a seat on the council, Middlebrooks called for building a performing arts/ cultural center in Glen Burnie.
"You're not going to get an office building developed in this kind of economy, but I think we could put some type of festival arts center together between private industry and the county," he said. "Otherwise, the property is going to sit as a parking lot."
Middlebrooks said he wants to present his plan for an arts center to Neall in early January and form a committee to study the project's feasibility. The last thing the county should do, he said, is disband the urban renewal program.
State Sen. Michael J. Wagner, D-Ferndale, agreed that urban renewal still is needed in downtown Glen Burnie, which he called "a blighted area."
"It's just like the Chesapeake Bay -- it didn't get polluted overnight," he said. "The place has deteriorated. It's a drawn-out thing getting it back on its feet."
But Stuart Morris, a Severna Park resident and member of the Republican Central Committee, said he believes Sulin should step down permanently, even if the program is continued.
"A man or woman should only have one job," Morris said. "To do both, in my opinion, is improper. Mr. Sulin should take a permanent leave-of-absence."
Wagner strongly disagreed, saying that state legislators should not be forced to quit their jobs just because they spend 90 days in Annapolis.
"The qualifications for being able to serve in the legislature is getting the most votes," he said. "I'm sure he (Sulin) can keep an eye on things, just like the rest of us switch back and forth."
Sulin said he will stop drawing checks from the county and turn in his county-owned car when he heads to Annapolis. Mathiesen, the assistant administrator who previously worked as a county planner, will fill in while Sulin is gone.
"He'll be around, though," Mathiesen said about Sulin. "I expect he'll be phoning in every day, so everything will run smoothly."