Hale remembers old world as he helps build new one

April 08, 2001|By Michael Olesker

EDWIN F. HALE SR. last week found himself astride two worlds, which are his natural collective habitat. He is the guy from working-class East Baltimore who made himself a king's fortune, sank lots of it back into his hometown when others were taking a hike, and now announces plans for a $100 million luxury face lift for a corner of Canton's waterfront currently marked by hulking oil tanks and toxic waste.

Thus, he erases some of his old world while continuing to cling to it. The day it was announced that Hale would develop an office tower with penthouse condominiums, a retail complex resembling Harborplace, a 244-slip marina and a 160-room extended-stay hotel in the heart of Canton's industrial waterfront, Hale sat in his spiffy First Mariner Bank office on Clinton Street. He wore a T-shirt and jeans, as though gearing up for a few rounds of duckpins at Patterson Lanes.

"Well, I was out looking at the site," he explained. "But, yeah, I'm more comfortable like this than I am in a suit."

He comes out of an east side where nobody gets too full of himself: born to working-class parents in Highlandtown (one of seven children), raised in Edgemere, graduated from Sparrows Point High, took some courses at Essex Community College but didn't stick around long enough to graduate.

And then he started a little trucking business, a little shipping business, a little bank - all of which blossomed - and all of which grew out of Hale's corporate offices on scruffy Clinton Street.

Now he lives just a few blocks from work, in a Canton that's one of the city's residential hot spots, along a city waterfront shining from Locust Point and Federal Hill, to Harborplace and John Paterakis' new Marriott Hotel, from Fells Point to Boston Street's luxury homes and marinas to - well, to the very spot Hale now wants to develop.

It's a long way from that moment, 25 years ago, when he had to fight to get the city's Planning Commission to approve his first truck yard on Clinton Street, just off a Boston Street that nearby residents described then as a deplorable "Burma Road" of potholes and dust.

Nobody envisioned any marinas there. They only imagined Hale's trucks rumbling through residential streets. A young politician named Barbara Mikulski challenged him: "Are these trucks gonna wake my people in the middle of the night?"

"I promise you," Hale said, "I will not be one of your problems. I just want to make something of myself."

At that time, a lot of city people were beginning to make themselves scarce. Entire neighborhoods were emptying out. Businesses were fleeing for suburbia. The east side was still trembling over plans for a highway that would have obliterated the face of Fells Point. In fact, when Hale got his site OK'd, he was warned that the property was subject to condemnation for the I-83 Expressway extension and that he might have to vacate.

Times change - in some ways. Hale, for all his business success, always stresses his emotional ties to the old ways: not only affection for the working-class neighborhoods of his youth, but also the old work ethics, and the instinct that finds comfort in jeans and a T-shirt.

The city, too, changes - in some ways. The exodus seen so vividly when Hale was getting started remains today. The newest census figures say Baltimore has now dropped from 13th to 17th among the nation's biggest cities.

But the waterfront neighborhoods such as Canton make the figures curious. Young people seem to flood these streets, not only driving real estate prices higher than ever but giving confidence to those such as Hale that he can risk $100 million on his new project.

"Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined what's happening today," Hale said last week. "When I first found this location, I was struck by the view of Fort McHenry across the water. I plunked my little 10-by-55-foot office trailer there and thought, `Just because you're in trucking, it doesn't mean you can't have a beautiful view.' But to see what's happened to this whole area, it's beyond belief."

For all the talk of diminishing city population, Hale said, "I do not see it. At [First Mariner] bank, we did $74 million in mortgages last month. Sixty percent were new mortgages, and 40 percent were refinances. We have people buying $300,000 homes in Canton. I'm not saying it's recession-proof - but the waterfront neighborhoods are hot. It's young people, and they're really good mortgages for people with nice incomes."

Those new homes are a stone's throw from his corporate offices. The new retail-office-hotel complex is even closer. A hundred million bucks?

"A no-brainer," said Hale. He remembers how the east side was, and believes he knows what it's becoming.

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