Power struggle stalls Hopkins biotech park

East Baltimore: Can city's ambitious redevelopment plan be saved amid election-year passions?

March 25, 2002

ON PAPER, it looks like an inarguable proposition: Harness all the untapped commercial potential of Johns Hopkins research by building a privately owned biotech park north of the university's East Baltimore medical campus.

Surely no one could object to an $800 million plan that aims to revitalize some 100 acres of Baltimore's worst neighborhoods over the next decade.

Or could they?

The jarring reality is that after 16 months of preparatory meetings and blueprints, the biotech plan has stalled. Five City Council bills needed to get the project off the ground have yet to even be introduced.

Worse yet, a power struggle among East Baltimore's political power brokers, City Hall and Hopkins has prevented the signing of a basic memorandum of understanding among the various parties. Until that document exists, no take-charge organization can be created to spearhead redevelopment.

The impasse is scandalous -- but not unexpected. The mistrust among the involved parties runs deep, and has its basis in a history of noncooperation.

But lack of cooperation among the local politicians, City Hall and Hopkins has been the bane of East Baltimore for decades.

It explains why Hopkins has never fully realized its potential as an economic engine.

It also explains why the area's only real growth industry is its prisons.

The East Baltimore Biotech Park would break with this dismal past.

If fully developed, the park could create 8,000 jobs. And while 300 homeowners, 500 renters and 100 small businesses would have to relocate to make room for construction, East Baltimore would benefit from a concentrated improvement drive.

So what's the hang-up? In a nutshell, it's a suspicion that "the big winner out of all this is Johns Hopkins," as one church leader put it, and "every time we as a community want something, there is no money available."

Mayor Martin O'Malley has gone to great lengths to allay these fears.

An example is the relocation package.

The city has pledged to offer financing packages that do not increase displaced homeowners' debt payments even if they buy a more expensive home in the revitalization area.

Yet debate rages over whether this generous arrangement is fair enough.

Some residents demand that the city offer them the option to return to the old neighborhood once it has been rebuilt, complicating compensation considerations. Other explosive issues include minority inclusion in construction and job-training programs.

The danger is that this give-and-take will cease being protracted bargaining and become nonnegotiable hostage-taking. The feasibility of the whole biotech park project would be threatened if that happened.

When East Baltimore politicians, the city and Hopkins meet today to tackle the roadblocks, politics must succumb to progress. They should work out the differences, calm all the fears -- but not allow posturing to undo the whole plan.

The biotech park can be successful only if all investors are assured it really will get done and is not going to be an endless feud that drains everyone's resources and patience.

If the Hopkins area cannot guarantee success, a similar park at another university will. And once again, East Baltimore will be left behind.

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