Fiery builder has softer side

July 17, 1995|By James M. Coram and Patrick Gilbert | James M. Coram and Patrick Gilbert,Sun Staff Writers

Get Nicholas Bernard Mangione talking about how he became a multimillionaire developer after growing up poor in Baltimore and he is the essence of charm.

He not only reminisces, he makes small asides -- as though hearing the stories he is telling for the first time. He is relaxed, warm, gracious and hospitable.

But get the 70-year-old patriarch of Mangione Family Enterprises talking about government bureaucracy and his demeanor changes. His body tenses and his voice becomes agitated. In that moment, he appears the embodiment of anger.

If Mr. Mangione has a public relations problem, it is this: The grandfatherly persona is mostly private -- shared with family and friends. But the angry, combative, accusative side comes out in public, aimed at people who oppose or attempt to slow his projects.

"If people treat me in a fair and honest way, we get along fine," says Mr. Mangione, who is pushing to build a country club, golf course and 50 homes on the historic Hayfields Farm property he owns in Hunt Valley. "If they tell lies, my temper just gets the best of me."

It is a temper well-known to government officials, community leaders and to the citizens whom he sometimes shouts down during public meetings. His is a temper so explosive that even some of his friends ask not to be quoted about him, fearing their remarks may be misinterpreted.

Opponents have the same fear. The Dulaney Valley Improvement Association, for example, has fought Mr. Mangione for years over parking at his Towson office building and his plans to build a nursing home nearby. The group's president won't talk publicly about their problems with Mr. Mangione for fear of being sued.

It is Mr. Mangione's impatience that "gets him into trouble," a Howard County official says. "Nick wants to visit a development the day after he conceives of it."

Howard County once hauled Mr. Mangione into court when the developer forged ahead with bulldozers after he got tired of waiting for permission to build a second golf course at his Turf Valley resort in Ellicott City.

"He has been in fights everywhere he has been -- whether it's in Howard County, Lutherville, or here in [Hunt] Valley," says Shirley Mand, a valley resident who lives across the road from Hayfields.

Baltimore County's zoning commissioner recently approved Mr. Mangione's request to build a country club and golf course on 226 of the farm's 474 acres. Mr. Mangione wants to build 50 homes on the remaining land.

Ms. Mand and many of her neighbors oppose the golf course project. But she says that "Nick Mangione is a good person," and that "if you are his friend and in need, he will be there for you. The whole family is like that."

He's also "very determined," she says, "and will do whatever it takes to get what he wants. . . . I firmly believe Nick won't stop with 40 or 50 houses and one golf course -- or won't follow restrictions placed on him."

Martin P. Azola, a former member of the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission, came away with a different view of Mr. Mangione after meeting with him to urge protection of historic structures on the Hayfields property. He was reminded of his own father, also an Italian-American developer.

'A matter of honor'

"They both had a hard time understanding why regulations are needed when they are providing opportunities for new jobs and tax revenue," Mr. Azola says. "What they want to do with the property they own becomes a matter of honor, of principle."

The real key to understanding Mr. Mangione, says former Baltimore Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, is to look at his family -- his wife, Mary, to whom he is devoted, and the five sons and five daughters to whom he is gradually turning over his business.

"Nick Mangione is foremost identified as a family man," Mr. D'Alesandro says. "That's his calling card even before he became a successful businessman. He is maybe a little rough around the edges and maybe with an aggressive personality, but a man with a big heart. . . . He earned his success the hard way."

Born in Baltimore's Little Italy, Mr. Mangione spent his first eight years in a one-room flat with an outdoor privy until his family moved several blocks north to a three-story rowhouse with two other families in the 800 block of Aisquith St.

Father dies

His father, Louis, an Italian immigrant who could not read or write, worked in the city water department until he died of pneumonia when young Nicholas was 11.

"A water main busted, and he refused to leave in the rain," Mr. Mangione says. "He was 42 and strong -- a good, hard-working man who never lost a day's work all during the Depression -- but he caught pneumonia and died."

The family was left without income.

"There was no welfare, no city pension," Mr. Mangione says. "We had little help from outsiders. Once a week, my brother and I would get a bag of flour from the church."

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