Insurer starts work on garage Mount Washington building called essential to USF&G consolidation

February 24, 1996|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,SUN STAFF

USF&G Corp. yesterday officially began construction on the first of several planned buildings at its Mount Washington campus for a consolidation that was nearly thwarted, an event that could have resulted in the insurer's departure from the region.

USF&G Chairman and Chief Executive Norman P. Blake Jr. said the consolidation will allow the company to remain competitive in an intensely competitive industry.

"This represents a rebirth, part of what we're trying to accomplish with the company," Mr. Blake said during a ceremonial groundbreaking.

The first building will be a four-story parking garage, which the company says is necessary to accommodate the consolidation.

The 850-space, brick and concrete garage, scheduled for completion in September, is to pave the way for 750 USF&G employees to relocate from the company's 35-story skyscraper downtown, part of an exodus the company announced in January 1995.

By the end of the year, USF&G will have roughly 2,400 employees in Mount Washington.

"This was an important move USF&G had to make," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

"If the garage would not have happened," Mr. Blake said after the ceremony, "it would have left us with no alternative [but to leave the region].

"We had a responsibility to our shareholders to be in a place that was conducive to doing business and being competitive.

"If we had been limited in that inability because of restraints, then we would have been doing a disservice to our shareholders."

Mr. Blake declined to provide details of other sites that were considered, but speculation has arisen that the $14 billion insurer looked at moving to either Des Moines, Iowa, or Salt Lake City, Utah.

Among the "restraints" USF&G faced in its effort to consolidate in Mount Washington were significant community opposition and subsequent delays in obtaining the necessary zoning changes.

Yesterday, those battles seemed all but forgotten.

"We're on an even keel with them at this point," said Tom Jewell, a representative of the Terraces homeowners' association, whose homes mesh within USF&G's campus.

"Things are mild and pleasant, as they should be.

"The thunder and fury have subsided."

At the center of the storm was controversy over the 260,000-square-foot garage's design and building materials, which USF&G elected to change to suit its neighbors.

Mr. Blake said several times that the company was "looking forward to being a great neighbor."

USF&G has had operations in Mount Washington since 1984, two years after it bought the 72-acre Sisters of Mercy campus that straddles the Baltimore city-county line.

The company currently operates from five buildings in Mount Washington, containing 638,000 square feet.

Although approvals for the garage were obtained in June,

USF&G's threat to move out of the area was underscored in various comments yesterday from government leaders who attended the ceremony.

"USF&G is an extraordinarily important company for this state," said James T. Brady, secretary of the state's Department of Business and Economic Development agency.

And we need to do everything we can to make Maryland a place for as much of its operation as we can."

In addition to constructing the garage, USF&G plans to eventually expand its training and development center at Mount Washington, build a mixed-use commercial building with office and retail space and add surface parking lots.

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