The battle over where to put the headquarters of the federal agency that runs Medicare came to a head yesterday, as the U.S. General Services Administration narrowed the field to one site in Woodlawn and one in Baltimore.
GSA's announcement formally knocks out three other sites in Baltimore County. County political leaders are campaigning fiercely to keep the headquarters of the U.S. Health Care Financing Administration in the suburbs, where HCFA has been based since the 1970s.
"Everyone knows of the [political] interest -- you can't help it if you read the paper," said Steven Peters, the GSA contracting officer who is leading the search for the administration's new home. "But we haven't gotten special instructions. . . . We're attempting to separate the procurement process from the outside interest this project has generated."
HCFA is based at the Social Security complex just inside the Baltimore Beltway in Woodlawn.
The new 800,000-square-foot-plus building is expected to be the biggest office project built in the area during the first half of the 1990s. The agency has 2,800 to 2,900 employees in the area and is expected to have 3,300 within five years.
GSA is expected to choose this summer between a site just north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards and a 57-acre site at 7500 Security Blvd.,just west of the Beltway.
The Baltimore site is backed by the Rouse Co. of Columbia, Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. and the Henson Co. The Woodlawn site is backed by Boston Properties and Towson-based James F. Knott Development Co. Both development teams filed their final proposals Friday, the GSA said.
Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, has been leading county officials in lobbying the GSA to keep HCFA in the suburbs. Employee unions also want to stay in Woodlawn, a point they have underscored in recent demonstrations.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin D-Md.-3rd, has stayed neutral, but HCFA employees have been angry with him because he sponsored a 1989 amendment that paved the way for city sites to be considered.
Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.-7th, had announced his support for the county site but has since backed off. He said heavy job losses in Baltimore led him to return to his earlier neutrality. Both sites are in his district.
"While I continue to sympathize with the concerns of the employees who want to remain in Woodlawn, it is difficult to ignore the enormous economic vacuum created by Baltimore City's loss of 29,000 jobs in the past year," Mr. Mfume said in a statement yesterday. "Under normal circumstances, my natural choice would be to support the wishes of the union, but these negative employment figures add a dimension to the issue that can't be overlooked."
The city and the Baltimore County Council have maneuvered to help the development teams that would land HCFA for them. The County Council approved a $1 million budget transfer last night that would help pay to extend Security Boulevard and water and sewer service to the Knott/Boston Properties site.
"If Knott is not successful, that money will not be spent," said Merreen Kelly, the county administrative officer. Spending by HCFA employees is "an important part of the economy" in the Woodlawn area, he said.
The city has arranged a 20-year lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority to provide 1,200 free parking spaces for HCFA employees in lots that otherwise would be used for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, said Jeff Middlebrooks, executive vice president for development at Baltimore Development Corp. The proposal also includes a 713-space parking garage, said Robert Minutoli, a Rouse executive working on the project.
Mr. Middlebrooks said the city would pay for the parking lot lease with money from $12 million that Rouse and its partners have agreed to pay for the land for their proposed 22-story building.