On a bright February day, as the storm whipped up along Baltimore County's waterfront over a redevelopment plan bearing the wallop of condemnation, government leaders and the standard-bearers of local business gathered at the Riverwatch Restaurant and Marina for a quiet lunch.
Robert L. Hannon, the county economic development chief and architect of the Essex-Middle River revitalization plan, was there to win hearts and minds as he outlined the plan. At a front table, Robert D'Antonio, the new president of the Essex-Middle River-White Marsh Chamber of Commerce, listened intently, eyes fixed on the table.
It was a defining moment.
After the presentation, D'Antonio said the legislation needed work - Senate Bill 509 required a sunset provision, or deadline, when the power of condemnation would be withdrawn. D'Antonio, a native of Essex, also insisted on a clearer fair market value for the properties.
Across the room, Hannon responded to the suggestion of a sunset proviso. "That will never happen," he said without hesitation.
But when the General Assembly passed the measure the next month, a sunset guarantee was in the bill, and language assuring a fair market value for property - and relocation funds for apartment dwellers - was stronger.
D'Antonio avoids describing that day in February as confrontational, opting instead to call it successful.
"With the revitalization effort now ongoing, little jewels will be happening all over the landscape in eastern Baltimore County and the chamber wants to have a positive input into those developments," said D'Antonio, 49, who took office in November.
"The fact our citizens fought certain segments of the 509 initiative was a great turnaround because they discovered their own power," he said. "The worst thing a government can do is awaken a sleeping giant, and that's what happened here. Now let's get it working."
At a time when chambers of commerce in postindustrial communities across the nation are struggling to stay alive, the east-side organization has grown by nearly 100 members and has extended its reach into bustling White Marsh.
With D'Antonio's outside-the-box thinking, his political adroitness and his impressive background, the 330-member chamber has charted a new course of independence, fresh economic development and promotion of the east side's rebirth. So far, he gets high marks.
"Bob applies business sense to community service," said Frank Stephenson, chairman of the board of Skytech Inc. at Martin State Airport in Middle River, the state's largest general aviation airport. "His thoughts, his visions are big-picture. Most importantly, he is a hard driver, a very effective leader."
Stephenson and others remember the previous chamber as "basically a Ma-and-Pa operation that had little vision of what the community needed."
Previously, the chamber sponsored two events - an annual air show and a country music festival. The events brought visitors into the area and provided support to a local community college scholarship and the Glenn L. Martin Museum.
But the air show was canceled after an Air Force F-117A stealth fighter crashed into a Bowleys Quarters neighborhood in 1997.
The music festival, which featured some of the biggest heart-twangers on the country circuit, also was stopped after three lawsuits were filed against the organization and it was revealed the chamber owed $90,000 to music event vendors.
D'Antonio doesn't look back. His efforts, he said, are directed at helping make County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's redevelopment project a success. He said the chamber, like many homeowners, favors plans for a waterfront destination on Middle River, a community of single-family homes at the former site of the Riverdale apartments and the demolition of the Villages of Tall Trees to make way for a park.
The chamber membership supports a $5 million streetscape project that would add landscaping and curbs to Eastern Boulevard and serve as the gateway to the site of the planned waterfront cluster of marinas, an upscale restaurant and small shops.
Another son of the east side who became a successful businessman, Edwin F. Hale, said D'Antonio arrived at an opportune time.
"I'm already impressed by his leadership, his ability, his insights that he brings into the community," said Hale, chairman of the board of First Mariner Bank. "His arrival is perfect timing for 509. He is the most active chamber president I've ever seen."
Whether SB 509 survives a voter referendum challenge in November isn't one of D'Antonio's concerns. He entertains ideas that transcend that issue.
Next year, he, Stephenson and other leaders will open a Federal Aviation Administration-approved school at the Martin facility for aircraft mechanics, educating workers who could find employment at the Middle River airport or at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The 18-month course will be operated by the Pittsburgh School of Aeronautics.