CareFirst to tell city that it's staying

Subsidized parking accord prompts halt to Owings Mills move

Health care

January 06, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield Inc. will announce today that it will abandon its plans to move out of downtown Baltimore, retaining 350 jobs in the city.

Leaders from one of Maryland's largest health care providers will join Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and state House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings at a morning news conference on the company.

The agreement comes after the city Board of Estimates approved a parking lease yesterday that will assure the company 400 city downtown parking spaces at a reduced rate of $50 per month per space.

The pact, which will cost the city $48,000 a year, is contingent on CareFirst signing a seven-year lease to remain at 100 S. Charles St. in the Bank of America building.

"We're very confident that we're going to sign that lease," John J. Chell, CareFirst manager of real estate and facilities planning, told the estimates board yesterday.

By remaining in Baltimore, CareFirst will give up its plans to move its downtown operation near its Owings Mills headquarters. In return, city officials said Baltimore will retain about $320,000 in taxes annually over the seven-year lease.

More important, however, the new city administration will make a key save to stem the tide of companies leaving downtown. CareFirst would have joined Piper & Marbury, the state's largest law firm, which will move 500 jobs out of downtown this year to a new headquarters in Mount Washington.

"It's very significant," M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm, said of the CareFirst agreement. "We think it sends a very strong message."

O'Malley said yesterday that city and state officials including himself, Glendening, Rawlings and City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt began urging CareFirst President William L. Jews to reconsider the move shortly after the company's announcement in September.

Jews announced that the company was giving one-year notice to vacate more than a quarter of the 17-story bank building offices it rents. Jews listed parking and public safety worries as the key problems.

Over the past four months, city and state officials have been meeting and calling Jews regularly, urging him to keep the company in Baltimore.

"We did a full-court press," O'Malley said yesterday. "We're very delighted that Mr. Jews has stepped up to show that he is the corporate leader we know he is."

Pratt also welcomed the news. In November, Pratt asked that a $127 million city contract with the company to handle third-party insurance claims for 30,000 of the city's 44,000 workers and retirees be deferred. The contract figure includes the city payout to claims.

Pratt then met with company leaders to discuss the move. The contract was approved last month.

"It will be a win-win situation for CareFirst and the city," said Pratt, who sits on the estimates board with O'Malley and City Council President Sheila Dixon.

CareFirst has declined to comment on the matter, referring all calls to O'Malley.

The potential loss of CareFirst again highlighted the city's lack of downtown parking, Brodie said. Fourteen months ago, the city approved spending $47 million to build four downtown lots that will add 1,600 spaces. After a survey of downtown executives, the city estimated that it would need 3,600 new spaces.

The estimates board also approved an amendment to the city's economic development plan that will allow it to apply to a $10 million state program to attract businesses. Among projects for which the city hopes to gain state support are downtown and Jonestown parking garages.

"Parking was probably the sticking point," Brodie said. "It's just on everybody's mind."

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