CareFirst reportedly is set to abandon plan to leave city

Insurer would agree to keep downtown site where 500 have jobs


December 11, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

City and state officials are expected to soon announce that CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield will abandon its plans to move out of Baltimore, saving 500 jobs.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, told the Baltimore Howeowners Coalition this week that the city is nearing an agreement to keep Maryland's largest health care firm from moving to Owings Mills, giving newly inducted Mayor Martin O'Malley a key save in his first month in office.

"This will give the mayor the confidence he needs to move more aggressively on these issues," Rawlings said. "That will give the city so much hope and give the mayor the kind of push he needs."

CareFirst officials, however, said that no agreement has been reached. Spokesman Jeff Valentine confirmed that talks to keep the company have occurred.

"There is nothing to announce," Valentine said. "I can assure you that there is nothing scheduled for next week."

Likewise, O'Malley said that he isn't aware that an agreement has been finalized, but confirmed that he and Rawlings have been working hard to keep the company in the city.

"It would send a great message to the city," O'Malley said. "We've tried to do everything we can to make them stay here."

The company, which has 2.54 million members and handles BlueCross Blue- Shield health plans in Maryland and the District of Columbia, announced in September that it planned to move its downtown operation to a site near its Owings Mills headquarters. Company officials even signed a lease on a planned 96,000-square-foot single-story office building.

The company said it would vacate more than a quarter of the 17-story Bank of America tower that it rents at 100 S. Charles St.

Under its lease, CareFirst had to give a year's notice before vacating. Company officials said price and location were the key reasons for the move.

Rawlings, meeting with the homeowners coalition late Wednesday, said he mediated meetings between O'Malley and William L. Jews, CareFirst's president and chief executive officer, that will result in the company remaining in Baltimore.

Rawlings would not discuss the details of the tentative agreement to keep CareFirst in the city. He told a group of about 30 coalition members that a news conference would likely be called within the week with Gov. Parris N. Glendening, O'Malley, himself and Jews, who also chairs the Greater Baltimore Alliance, a quasi-public economic development corporation that markets the region to businesses.

Rawlings also mentioned that part of O'Malley's legislative agenda would be creating a city parking authority to handle growing downtown parking woes.

In November, the city approved spending $47 million to build four municipal parking garages containing 1,600 spaces. A 1997 study found that downtown Baltimore needed 3,615 additional parking spaces. The city has about 24,000 spaces downtown.

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