City cannot justify deal with local strip joint

March 11, 2001|By Michael Olesker

INTO EACH LIFE, a little irony must fall.

In the same week that Mayor Martin O'Malley minimizes the impending loss of five library branches because of tight city money, he strains to justify a $480,000 sweetheart deal for the family of Kenneth A. "Kenny Bird" Jackson, who run a strip joint called the El Dorado Lounge that is relocating from downtown's west side to The Block.

In the same breath that state Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV talks of the need for more African-American businesses in the city, he threatens to choke off state money for the huge west-side redevelopment project -- if the city doesn't put enough money into the pockets of the strip joint owners.

In the same week that City Comptroller Joan Pratt points to the city's impending $21 million deficit as part of her disgust over the El Dorado deal, the Board of Estimates, buying up properties for the west-side development, somehow OKs the purchase of the Paramount Hotel property on Howard Street for $6.9 million -- even though it was bought for just $3 million only two years ago.

So it goes in a city that can't balance its bankbooks and can't get its arguments straight when it attempts to explain why.

The Enoch Pratt Free Library announces it will close five of its 26 branches by the end of the year -- and as many as five more by 2006 -- and Mayor O'Malley, smiling bravely through a municipal heartache, declares, "The [library] said, look, we need to become leaner, stronger and better."

Actually, the library said it was dealing as best it could without enough money. Closing neighborhood branches does not make a system stronger and better, it just makes it disappear. First it disappears from a neighborhood's geography, and then from the consciousness of children just learning the value of language and adults who still treasure the values first gained in those libraries.

But in a time of tight money, the mayor finds it reasonable that the city hand over a Gay Street building to the El Dorado Lounge for $50,000 -- just weeks after a city appraisal indicated the building was worth $530,000.

That building, 19-21 S. Gay St., which is around the corner from The Block but also just the smallest toss of a G-string from the Inner Harbor, and from the offices of Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown Inc., and from the Holocaust Memorial, and just across the street from the Baltimore City Community College's Business and Continuing Education Center.

This gets us back to life's little ironies. For years, The Block has been the city's dirty little secret. When businesses of all manner were deserting the city, the owners of strip joints and porno parlors stayed behind. This doesn't make them urban saints. But it did make them taxpayers and, according to the various laws, legitimate business people.

This gives Kenneth A. Jackson a certain imprimatur. He is not just a dealer in human flesh, but a businessman. He is not just a man with a history of arrests for guns and drugs and manslaughter but, in his modern guise, a sort of victim, forced to relocate because the city wants to breathe new life into downtown's west side, who deserves the same consideration as anyone else in that position.

But not only are Jackson's family members to get a $480,000 break on the building the club will move into -- they're also getting almost twice the $225,000 they paid just five years ago for the building he's being forced to vacate.

And it has escaped no one's notice that Jackson has political allies who have gone to bat for him -- including Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV. Some of this is understandable; after all, Mitchell represents the district, and he's expressed concern for a number of those being relocated. But the rhetoric gets uncomfortable when Mitchell talks of bottling up state money if people such as Jackson's family don't get what Mitchell considers a decent payout.

"That's my job," Mitchell said. "What I've said is, I'll put pressure on the west-side development if any of these people don't get fair money. In Jackson's case, should he say, `Well, I know it's a strip club, so I agree I should [get less]?' You know, my community is very poor and has been on me for being out front on the west-side development."

But isn't there potential for considerable profits for black business people on the west side? And, if so, why jeopardize that with talk of retaliation for Jackson?

"Yes," Mitchell said, "the black community will benefit. All kinds of opportunities are there. But why do people keep focusing on Jackson? What about the Paramount Hotel? There's a guy who's doubling his money in two years."

Well, yes and no.

It is true that Ramesh Bhatia, an Indian immigrant, put down $3 million in cash two years ago to buy the property, and that the city's Board of Estimates has now approved buying it back for $6.9 million. "But," says Bhatia's local attorney, John Murphy, "he bought it on the definite assurances of the city that they'd do everything they could to let him hold onto it. Then he spent $3 million completely refurbishing it, at which point the city says, `Sorry, we're gonna take your hotel and condemn it so we can building a parking garage there.'"

Simple math shows Bhatia put $6 million into the hotel. By getting $6.9 million back, he thus clears $900,000 in two years.

Imagine how many library branches $900,000 could keep open.

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