The summer of 1983 was a desperate one for Charleston, S.C., Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.
His revitalization plan for Charleston's genteel but run-down shopping district had stalled after a local real estate developer was unable to secure financing for a linchpin project on a four-acre lot beset by strip joints and boarded-up retail stores.
The crisis endangered not only a proposed eight-story hotel and retail hub but also the entire renaissance of the historic Southern city.
Desperate, Mr. Riley turned to one of the few people who he knew could complete the key piece in his strategy, David S. Cordish, the 55-year-old chairman of Baltimore-based Cordish Co., a development business specializing in urban redevelopment projects.
"David's a problem-solver, an innovator," Mr. Riley said, explaining why he called Mr. Cordish. "Understand, we critically needed a quality development to occur at that location. And what we wanted was a project that was not only visionary but could turn a profit."
Today, that once-dilapidated property contains a $70 million, award-winning shopping mall that includes Polo/Ralph Lauren, Gucci and Godiva; a 500-room, four-star Omni hotel that is averaging an 85 percent occupancy rate; and the largest conference facilities in the Carolinas.
In addition, Mr. Cordish's 495,000-square-foot Charleston Place created 800 jobs.
"We've got one of the greatest success stories in urban America," the mayor said. "It's achieved everything we had hoped for, and it wouldn't have happened without the involvement of David Cordish."
Charleston Place, a joint venture between Cordish and the Taubman Co. Inc., a Michigan-based mall developer, also has been partially responsible for spurring $500 million worth of new investment downtown, including a new Saks Fifth Avenue department store and a Class A office building under construction across the street.
"Saks would not be coming here were it not for those stores," said Frank W. Norvell, a brokerage and development manager for the Beach Cos. of Charleston, which is developing the $25 million Saks project. "The city's financial center wouldn't be where it is today without Charleston Place."
Mr. Cordish's experience in Charleston isn't unique, nor is he a stranger to urban redevelopment. Since its founding in 1968, the Cordish Co. has undertaken similar rescues of nearly defeated city projects in Houston, Detroit, Salt Lake City, New Haven, Conn., and Niagara Falls, N.Y.
But not in Baltimore.
That could change, however. Next month, Mr. Cordish intends to submit to the city a plan to redevelop the derelict Power Plant at Pier 4 in the Inner Harbor. The $45 million Six Flags Corp. indoor amusement park once housed there closed in 1990.
The city recently reopened bidding for the 106,200-square-foot Power Plant because a group known as Sports Center USA Inc., which had planned a $32 million sports-oriented theme park along Pier 4, was unable to obtain financing for the venture.
Under Mr. Cordish's plan, the 94-year-old Power Plant would be transformed into an entertainment complex with restaurants, nightclubs and other activities, similar to his $30 million Bayou Place project in Houston.
There, Mr. Cordish's company is transforming a vacant convention center in the heart of the city's cultural district into a 150,000-square-foot entertainment destination, Texas' largest.
The 13-club project is set to open next August.
"Downtown Baltimore needs an adult night life and more family entertainment during the day," Mr. Cordish said. "And a Bayou Place-type of project would absolutely be the best complement to the Inner Harbor. We have the contacts. I just can't see us failing. The harbor is a tremendous success, and we'd just be capitalizing on it. We've done tougher."
By tougher, Mr. Cordish may be referring to his work in New Haven, Conn., where his company purchased the grand but bankrupt Park Plaza Hotel in July 1994.
After nine months of intense haggling with city and state officials over back taxes and financial assistance, the Cordish Co. is in the design stage of a $20 million renovation scheduled to open in late summer of 1996.
What made the negotiations so contentious has become a Cordish hallmark for the company's urban endeavors: financial assistance.
As part of the deal, Mr. Cordish requested a $10 million grant toward the renovation, a 50 percent break on $1.6 million in taxes accrued before his involvement and a small tax cut through 2001.
In March, Mr. Cordish got what he asked for.
In return, Park Plaza will create 250 jobs and generate $270,000 annually in taxes.
"He's definitely tough, he knows what he's doing, and he's very thorough in his negotiations," said G. J. Tollett, director of Houston's convention and entertainment department. "But he's also been very honest and fair. I've been dealing with him for four years, and he's a man of his word."