Plan for business center in Canton wins backing Community leaders say proposal would boost area, bring jobs


October 02, 1998|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

It is a classic lost urban landscape: acre upon acre of contaminated land, studded with rows of empty oil tanks squatting like so many alien spaceships.

For a vision of what Exxon's closed distribution center in Canton can become, city officials are looking no further than the nearby Fort Holabird Industrial Park: a melange of modern plants and warehouses, with ample parking and plenty of greenery, that is virtually at capacity.

As Baltimore prepares to submit next week the second of two federal grant applications for its proposed Chesapeake Business Center along Boston Street -- which would transform the forlorn Exxon property -- the city's initiative is drawing support from many area community and business leaders. They say the proposal will further boost the bustling area and create much-needed jobs.

When Canton-area residents drew up a community plan five years ago, the "No. 1 recommendation was the creation of a new industrial park," according to Kenneth Strong, executive director the Southeast Community Organization.

"Residents had felt the pain of downsizing and outright moving of a lot of industrial jobs," said Strong.

But some real estate and development experts warn that the city may have trouble attracting business to the proposed 80-acre center because of competition from suburban sites with low tax rates and less congestion.

"It's going to be a tough sell," said Richard Clinch, program manager of the Maryland Business Research Partnership at the University of Baltimore.

Meanwhile, two public hearings and a review of additional documents since the plan for an 80-acre parcel was first announced two weeks ago reveal new details, such as an overall estimated $57 million cost, and new concerns, primarily about increased truck traffic.

To city economic officials, the Chesapeake Business Center represents a new opportunity -- to create jobs, clean up the land and capture business for the warehousing and distribution of goods.

If fully developed, the center will create an estimated 1,500 jobs, officials say.

And in its application last month for $3 million from a new federal program, called the Brownfields Economic Development Initiative, the city argued that developing the site will "ensure that the environmental contamination resulting from more than 100 years of petroleum distribution will be addressed."

The U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is administering the program, has $25 million to award, but a spokeswoman could not say how many cities had applied.

In addition, the city will apply next week for a separate $5 million HUD loan. The federal money would pay for more than half of the $15 million cost of the operation's initial phase -- which would include purchase of the property, demolition and cleanup and construction of a 230,000-square-foot building on the parcel's easternmost 30 acres.

Additional development of the parcel would be done in stages over a period of 10 years at a cost of another $42 million, all of it in private money, officials said.

Exxon has agreed not to sell the property until after the first of the year, when the city expects to hear whether it has gotten the federal money.

"We are not actively marketing that property. But we are taking calls from specific buyers," Exxon spokesman Crawford Bunkley said.

With its proximity to rail, port and highway transportation, city officials hope the proposed center will help Baltimore compete for large distribution hubs like those of Saks Fifth Avenue that have chosen suburban locations.

"The distribution business is booming in Maryland, but it's not booming in Baltimore," said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, the president of the Baltimore Development Corp., which is spearheading the project.

Area business leaders are bullish on the proposed center's prospects. Developer C. William Struever, who said he abandoned plans to develop part of the Exxon property several years ago because of the recession of the early 1990s, called the center "a real winner."

"One thing the city's lacked is good buildings in a quality location," said Struever, who has developed several projects in Canton and is a member of the city school board.

Eleven years ago, Struever bought a closed Crown Cork & Seal Corp. bottling plant adjacent to the proposed business center and converted it into distribution and warehouse space for several companies.

Last year, Struever sold his last interest in the project, called the Canton Trade Center, to Overflo Public Warehouse.

In June, Overflo, which had been part of the Canton Trade Center almost from its inception, bought out the Burns & Russell Co. space in the center, upping its investment in the trade center a total of nearly $4 million over 18 months, records show.

Herman F. Timme, chairman of Overflo, a family firm that provides storage space for about 400 companies, acknowledged that the proposed Chesapeake Business Center could provide more competition for his company.

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