Is it an economic beauty or a beast? Is it a monster employer that will bring 3,300 jobs and anchor a whole real estate market, or is it just a $100 million slab of pork that pays no taxes?
Let's put this a more respectful way: Why is the competition between Baltimore City and Baltimore County to be the new home of the U.S. Health Care Financing Administration such a big deal? And why is it making Reps. Helen D. Bentley and Benjamin L. Cardin trade such testy words, when none of the three locations being considered is in either of their districts?
Housing HCFA is a big deal, especially, lately, to the county. County leaders and HCFA workers have begun a determined public-relations offensive to keep the parent of the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs in Woodlawn, where it has been since the late 1970s. A decision is expected this summer.
County officials and union leaders say they're trying to keep the city from hijacking HCFA. They say the city started politicizing HCFA's fate in 1989 when Mr. Cardin, D-Md.-3d, amended the congressional authorization for the new headquarters to allow Baltimore City sites to compete. To hear them tell it, they're just fighting fire with fire.
"Why kick each other?" said Mrs. Bentley, R-Md.-2d, who sits on the House subcommittee that oversees the General Services Administration, the agency that decides where HCFA will go. "Let's not steal from each other. Let's try to get things from somewhere else."
City leaders respond that they haven't been politicking. Mr. Cardin maintains that he is neutral on the sites, saying it would be "inappropriate" for him to lobby either way. An aide to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said the mayor hasn't matched County Executive Roger B. Hayden's voyage, accompanied by Mrs. Bentley, to meet with honchos of the General Services Administration, which makes the government's real estate decisions. The aide said the city also hasn't asked congressmen to lobby for the downtown site near Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
The HCFA fight is showing political and cultural fissures as old as the progressive reform movement of the early 20th century, and as modern as the ongoing redefinition of political and economic power between shrinking cities and suburbs that have grown so much since World War II that they have won another, more urban name -- edge cities.
Is a decision like housing HCFA supposed to be political, or is it one that civil servants should make based on theoretically objective criteria? 19th-century Stalwarts and Mugwumps could have had a nice fight over that, but it's an issue the republic has never totally solved. And if the decision does come down to politics, at this late stage of the nation's exodus from cities to suburbs, do traditional cities really have the clout to win a political fight with the suburbs if they pick one?
Most of all, what are they fighting over? The possible locations -- two in Woodlawn and one in Baltimore -- are only about a 15-minute drive apart. And both sides' hopes and fears about what HCFA's move can do in the short term seem exaggerated -- to put it mildly -- in light of GSA's estimates.
"For the last 30 years, the city has had all its resources aimed at bringing back the center of the city," said Jeff Middlebrooks, executive vice president for downtown development at Baltimore Development Corp. And HCFA can play a big role by reinforcing the city's image as a center for health care and life science business, Mr. Middlebrooks said.
"The idea that life sciences is where the city needs to position itself is very serious business," Mr. Middlebrooks said. "HCFA as national headquarters for care . . . is symbolically very important to that effort. The city is never going to be Silicon Valley. Manufacturing isn't likely to come back in any major way. We've got to play on our strengths."
The county's view is more immediate and more practical. Mrs. Bentley and Mr. Hayden say HCFA workers now spend $12 million a year in Woodlawn, creating hundreds of jobs on top of the 2,800 HCFA employees, expected to grow to 3,300 by 1995.
But an environmental impact statement prepared by GSA indicates that the economic impact of the HCFA building may be negligible -- at least in the short run.
GSA says the average HCFA employee who doesn't live in Woodlawn -- and, despite the county's rhetoric, only about 9 percent do -- spends $69.61 a week in the Woodlawn area. The big winners: restaurants, fast food joints, grocery stores and gas stations.
That works out to an average of $348 a week for the 560 businesses GSA thought most affected by HCFA's spillover spending, according to the impact statement.
"No business is going to go under for $350 a week," said Robert Minutoli, vice president at the Rouse Co., one of the developers of the city site. "A lot is being said about the impact on businesses. There is none."