City sends developers a message

Ward site subsidy held up until more minorities are hired

March 07, 2002|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

The transformation of the old Montgomery Ward & Co. warehouse into Baltimore's largest office complex hit a snag yesterday when the city - trying to send a message - refused to approve a $92,000 public subsidy until more minority contractors gain work at the site.

As have most developers awarded public funding in Baltimore, Samuel K. Him- melrich Jr., the lead developer, agreed to hire substantial numbers of minority- and women-owned companies for jobs such as installing drywall and electrical wiring. The companies were slated to get 35 percent of the work.

Himmelrich said there was a misunderstanding, and his southwest Baltimore project at Washington Boulevard and Monroe Street will meet the requirement.

But as far as city is concerned, he has not. And he's not the only one, said Council President Sheila Dixon, a member of the city's Board of Estimates, which deferred a vote on the money for a week. She called enforcement of the requirements "a struggle" and a continuing problem.

"Sometimes we need to show these developers we are serious," Dixon said. "We've discussed this with him in the past. He needs to bring his numbers up."

In some cases, local developers have complained that there are not enough large minority contractors to handle the jobs or that they are already busy.

Dixon noted that a city liaison and a minority contractors' group has offered to help link developers to a list of qualified companies approved by the city.

At yesterday's board meeting, Mayor Martin O'Malley said that anytime taxpayer money is used, that developers need to abide by contractor requirements.

"If they want to do the project totally privately and employ whoever they want, then be our guest. But if they're going to ask the city to be a partner in the development, they've got to build fairly, they've got to be inclusive, and they've got to make sure that they abide by the rules that we have decided to set forth."

The $92,000 stalled by the Board of Estimates makes up a small portion of the millions in public money involved in the southwest Baltimore project. Himmelrich and partner David F. Tufaro have received an $8 million federal loan and a $2 million state loan under brownfields redevelopment programs; an automotive service facility once occupied part of the 26-acre site. The $75 million project may also benefit from historic tax credits and a redevelopment grant worth millions more.

Himmelrich said the subsidy in question is federal money passed through the state Department of Natural Resources and then through city coffers. It is to be used to plant grasses on the roof of the building to make it "green." It would also help make the building far more energy efficient and environmentally friendly - a key to luring the state Department of the Environment and the State Lottery Agency to the 1.3 million-square-foot former catalog center. The first tenant is expected to move into the building, called Montgomery Park, in June.

Other developers, including David Hillman of Southern Management Co., also have said they have had trouble finding appropriate contractors for their projects.

Himmelrich said he expects to get his $92,000 next week. "We are actually on track to do our requirements," he said. "This is a misunderstanding."

Sun staff writer Gady Epstein contributed to this article.

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