Coordinating vision with cash

Urban Chronicle

Problem: When the city had funding to redevelop East Baltimore, it had no grand plan. Now, it has a bold proposal, but could be short on the money needed.

May 31, 2001|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

FIVE YEARS ago, Baltimore had a pile of money that could have been used for the redevelopment of East Baltimore -- but no viable vision for the area.

Now, finally, the city is moving toward the creation of a bold plan for the area in the form of a biotech park just north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex -- but the word is that most of those resources available in the mid-1990s have been spent or committed.

What we have is failure to coordinate funding and farsightedness.

The ready money was in the form of a $34 million federal loan designated for the area around the Hopkins complex and $100 million in the federally funded empowerment zone, to be used to help revitalize dilapidated areas of East, West and southern Baltimore.

If that money, or a good part of it, had been committed to a biotech park, the park could have been up and running by now.

But the vision for East Baltimore then was to try and stem the tide of abandonment and deterioration through house-by-house, block-by-block renovations -- a process that proved as effective as trying to halt beach erosion at Ocean City with a pail and shovel.

The preliminary plan for a biotech park, with up to 1,000 new units of housing, was unveiled last week to residents of the Middle East neighborhood. Financing is just one of several sticky issues that remain to be worked out, but the idea at least holds out hope for the resuscitation of an area that seems to be taking its last breath.

Before the city halted its strategy of piecemeal rehabs in the area late last year, $13 million of the $34 million loan was allocated to buy properties, renovate houses and a vacant commercial building, and relocate residents. That leaves $21 million of the loan -- approved in 1996 -- to jump-start the biotech park, which has an initial cost estimate of at least $65 million.

And then there's the empowerment zone money.

Awarded to the city in December 1994, the $100 million in federal funds was designed to reinvigorate by job creation and community development some of the most distressed areas of the city, including Middle East, Washington Village and Sandtown-Winchester.

As of the end of last month, Empower Baltimore Management Corp., the nonprofit group set up to oversee the zone, reported creating 4,150 jobs through business expansions and start-ups -- about as many jobs as are projected to be created by the biotech park.

It also reported spending $43.7 million in 6 1/2 years to create jobs, prepare residents for work and improve the quality of life.

While the effects of the expenditures are open to debate, few could seriously argue that they have succeeded in transforming the areas around the Hopkins medical complex into "neighborhoods of choice" envisioned in the original application.

But Empower Baltimore officials are quick to dispel the notion that a big pool of untapped money remains that could be drawn on for possible funding of a biotech park.

"It's facile to say there's tens of millions of dollars left," said James L. Shea, Empower Baltimore's board chairman and managing partner of the law firm of Venable, Baetjer & Howard. "We've got obligations and commitments" for much of the rest of the money.

Perhaps emblematically, the heads of the two foundations who paid for a $130,000 study which concluded that a biotech park adjacent to Hopkins could be successful -- both of whom have connections to the empowerment zone -- differ on whether the empowerment zone should commit money to the project.

"Why not?" asked Timothy D. Armbruster, president of the Morris Goldseker Foundation and a former Empower Baltimore board member. "The mantra of Empower Baltimore has always been the creation of jobs."

"I don't know that everything the empowerment zone has decided to allocate money to is cast in concrete," he added.

But Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation and a board member of Empower Baltimore since the group's inception, said the biotech park was "exactly the thing the city should be doing." However, he suggested that the fact that the idea was so clearly in its formative stages made empowerment zone funding unlikely.

"If somebody was ready to build something today and they came to the empowerment zone, it would be something the empowerment zone would look at seriously," he said. "But that's all speculation. There isn't anything before us now. Who knows if there will be?"

Some of the programs to which money has been committed, such as funds to train workers for specific jobs, could be tapped by companies moving into a biotech park, as could substantial tax credits.

And empowerment zone officials, who say they like to emphasize human over physical development, point out that they considered and approved a request for $750,000 for property acquisition for a Bank One check processing facility on the theory that many of the 400 to 500 jobs to be created could be filled by zone residents.

"We've helped out on Bank One," said Shea. "Could we do it again? Let's hear what they want. No one's asked."

Shea also raised the issue of time -- and timing.

Projections are that it would take seven to 10 years to complete a biotech park. By law, the empowerment zone has until 2009 to spend its money, but officials, often criticized for moving too slowly, want to see it spent much more quickly than that.

"There's an urgency on our part," said Shea. "We're not going to sit and wait."

And so the burden is on the city to decide what it needs -- and can reasonably expect to receive -- from the empowerment zone. And then it's on the empowerment zone officials to give serious consideration to the request and what it could mean to the revitalization of the area around the Hopkins medical complex.

It's time -- past time -- to meld money and mission in East Baltimore.

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