As smoke billows from stacks into lumpy, steel-gray clouds over Baltimore's harbor, Bill Struever pounds through the muddy gravel of a waterfront construction site, simultaneously scanning the morning paper and gulping a cup of coffee - his fourth of the morning.
"12 Schools in City Eyed for Closing," blares the headline.
Struever, president of Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse, is the city's busiest developer and vice chairman of the Baltimore school board. And tonight the school system, struggling with deficits and declining enrollment, will have its first meeting of the academic year. But right now, Struever doesn't have time to think about that.
It's 6:50 a.m. and he's roaming the former Procter & Gamble soap plant in Locust Point, inspecting its renovation into an office complex called Tide Point. It's the most ambitious project of Struever's quarter-century career as the city's St. Jude of Lost Real Estate, an ideologically driven construction company owner who's made an art out of tapping government programs to renovate old factories and rebuild rundown neighborhoods.
At age 49, Struever is an icon of his generation's hopes for renaissance in Baltimore - an aging hippie who works the city's battered industrial landscape with the creativity of a sculptor determined to fashion something beautiful out of old tires and iceboxes that others have thrown into the alley.
He has hammered tin plants into luxury apartments, carved canneries into high-tech headquarters. Over the last quarter-century, his company has built and renovated about 3,000 homes and converted more than 5 million square feet of old Baltimore factories into offices and stores. It's the equivalent of 100 football fields of furniture warehouses and sailcloth factories turned into contemporary-looking offices for architects, public relations firms, software companies and others.
He's suffered failures - projects that lost money, the near bankruptcy of his company 10 years ago, two broken marriages. Still, he continues to throw himself into risky urban ventures, working sometimes 16 or more hours a day, firing off e-mails at 3 a.m. about wiring or plumbing problems. At times, some say, his zealotry can make him unbearable - a man so caught up in his vision that he becomes self-righteous, grandiose, obsessed about his image and difficult to shut up.
His caffeine-rush monologues veer wildly from fact to hyperbole in machine-gun style, testimony to the contradiction at the heart of his personality: He's a do-gooder with the slick style of a used-car salesman.
He works every angle to make his projects fly. He plays host at cocktail parties to charm community groups that might oppose him. He hires public relations firms to spin the media. And though he won't admit it, he's learned a lesson that artists in earlier centuries could not escape: To produce your art, you must endear yourself to the ruling class.
In Struever's case, that means raising money for the Democratic Party establishment that rules Maryland. He holds parties for the political glitterati, dines with the likes of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Bill Clinton, and serves on the Baltimore school board at the pleasure of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, for whom Struever has helped to raise campaign funds. Such networking is crucial to Struever. Roughly half the costs of his development projects in the city are paid through government subsidies and programs.
Critics say his manipulation of political connections contributes to an escalating battle for public subsidies that hurts taxpayers and drives away less-connected developers. Struever argues that he leans on government money less than many of his competitors.
During the course of a single whirlwind day, all of the facets of Struever's life can be glimpsed: Bill the builder, the school board leader, the political operator. There's little time for eating, sleeping or anything or anyone outside of his business.
The day begins at Tide Point, where he's hoping to pull off an economic miracle despite a slowing economy. He wants to bring 1,400 white-collar employees to a long-closed soap plant surrounded by a rowhouse neighborhood that has lost 2,600 jobs to industrial decline. Most of the space in the 400,000-square-foot plant was leased last year. But troubles are washing ashore.
In recent months, the crash of high-tech stocks has pushed an anchor Tenant, TidePoint Corp., into bankruptcy court and forced it and another tenant, Advertising.com, to lay off a combined 161 employees. Part of the construction is behind schedule. The doubling of estimated costs for an extension of Key Highway to the plant's entrance has left a $10 million gap in needed funding, according to city officials. And an angry neighborhood group has complained to Mayor Martin O'Malley about traffic and parking problems.