Developer sees city as hotbed of Internet entrepreneurs

This Just In...

September 29, 1999|By Dan Rodricks

I STAND READY for a water-view suite in the old Procter & Gamble plant. I'd be happy to have an office in the Tide building, something with access to a rooftop deck. I think The Sun should open a bureau there and appoint me chief. (To quote Chico Marx: "Whaddaya say, boss?") I could cover the waterfront the way former Sun reporter Helen Delich Bentley did, except I'll use a laptop. There's plenty of post-industrial waterfront news to keep me busy.

And when I'm not busy, I could go casting for rockfish out the back door -- I'll keep a cell phone in my vest, if the boss needs me -- or kayaking for coffee in Fells Point.

"I've done it in four minutes," says Bill Struever, chief executive officer of the company that's turning the old P&G plant into office space. "Clarification. That's four minutes to actually sitting down for coffee at the Daily Grind."

Struever made this boast after emerging from a green sea kayak. He'd just paddled it across the harbor from the P&G plant, which stands along the banks of Locust Point, next to Domino Sugar. We made the crossing to the Recreation Pier on Thames Street in a lazy 10 minutes, taking time to view the growing city skyline, to drift a bit and enjoy the calm of a foggy morning in the port of Baltimore. I wore a white shirt and tie. Struever, of course, carried his cellular phone. We went to the Daily Grind on Thames Street for coffee.

Sometimes Struever doesn't have such a direct trip planned.

Sometimes he takes a break from the P&G offices of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, where he and his associates plot to make parts of old Baltimore new again, and he paddles the kayak out by Fort McHenry to return phone calls.

Some of those calls might be to sell tenants on the idea of moving into one of the five buildings where P&G workers used to make Tide, Joy, Ivory and other soap products.

Struever Bros. just settled a deal with one of the region's fastest-growing Internet companies, TeknoSurf.com. The year-old company, formed by a couple of computer whiz-kid brothers, has 90 employees. A year ago, it had three.

It specializes in helping businesses advertise their products and services through Web sites, and generates almost $1 million monthly in revenue. Its growth has been so impressive the company recently attracted venture capital, to the tune of $11.75 million, for expansion. TeknoSurf will ultimately occupy nearly 36,000 square feet of the Tide and Ivory buildings, Struever says.

That's just the type of entrepreneurial, cyberspace company he hoped would find the P&G development attractive. The buildings are relatively easy to convert to the kind of space Internet companies want, Struever says, and the immediate neighborhood -- especially the waterfront -- helps sell the place. Struever hopes to have the 400,000-square-foot P&G complex leased by the end of the year. His plans call for a waterfront restaurant, too.

I was only semikidding about having an office there. Ah, to be 20-something, self-employed, plugged in, hip to the Internet, working with my DKNY baseball cap on backward, being creative, in some factory loft with a large view of my city, on the cusp of the new millennium.

I'd keep my fishing rod handy. Sugary, warm water next to Domino is said to attract schools of rockfish.

I'd take a walk or a bicycle ride down Key Highway to the harbor promenade. If I were to be one of Struever's tenants, I'd insist he throw in a new kayak or canoe as part of the deal.

Struever discovered the joys of paddling, for business and pleasure, a while ago.

He keeps kayaks handy for trips to Fells Point for coffee, or even the Inner Harbor for a business lunch.

Yesterday, in the beautifully expanded Daily Grind, Ed Kane, operator of the Water Taxi service, stopped by to say hello. He and Struever are making plans for a Water Taxi stop at P&G. From there, you could go anywhere -- downtown to Canton.

Not only does the waterfront make the P&G property enticing, so does Locust Point. One of Baltimore's sturdiest rowhouse neighborhoods, it could be an appealing live-where-you-work place for employees of the companies that will occupy P&G.

It all seems so smart, doesn't it? That's why they call it Smart Growth -- reclaiming old properties in the city while saving open space in the suburbs and exurbs, creating new enterprises in the aftermath of lost industry, gradually saving neighborhoods, even helping them thrive. Struever Bros. did it in Canton, by renovating the old American Can Co. complex and turning it into a mix of restaurants, stores and office space.

Bill Struever and his associates have been doing this sort of thing in the city for years, and he seems to believe that he and other developers have only just begun to mine opportunities in old Baltimore.

Struever believes Baltimore, with plenty of redeemable, relatively inexpensive industrial space, could become a genuine hotbed for Internet entrepreneurs. Hence the $53 million investment in the P&G project. Struever sees wired-up wise guys where there used to be longshoremen and factory workers.

He's most optimistic about the waterfront. Projects in the pipeline there add up in billions, not millions, he says. If the economy continues to click, if the new political leadership in the city throws the right switches, Baltimore's harbor boom could continue to attract international attention, new businesses and more jobs. We might even live to see something remarkable -- more people moving into Baltimore, than out of it.

Who knew a kayak trip could be so inspiring?

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