Biotech park `too important not to succeed'

E. Baltimore project holds promise of jobs, rebirth

April 16, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

From a makeshift stage on a vacant lot in the heart of East Baltimore, officials stressed two themes yesterday at a celebratory announcement of key agreements to make a proposed biotech park a reality.

One was the promise of the project - which could create 8,000 jobs and hundreds of units of new and rehabilitated housing - to transform the disintegrated area around the Johns Hopkins medical complex into a vibrant community that is an asset to the entire city.

The other was the difficulty in forging agreements on the makeup of a board to oversee the park's development, to fairly compensate residents who will have to be relocated and to ensure that the mostly poor, black community benefits from the project.

"We have put together a wonderful plan after many, many, many meetings," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat. "This has not been an easy task."

"There will not be another project like this in most of our lifetimes," he added.

Joseph Haskins Jr. - the banker who will head the board of the nonprofit East Baltimore Development Inc. and was instrumental in negotiating the agreements between the city, Hopkins and community leaders - spoke of times during the past several months "when things were bleak and we got frustrated."

"This project is too important not to succeed. For everyone, it's a win," said Haskins, chairman and chief executive officer of Harbor Bank of Maryland.

In an interview after the formal announcement, Haskins said, "I wouldn't be truthful if I didn't say there were times when each of the parties at the table felt we couldn't work things out. One thing that kept me going was no one ever said to me the project wasn't worth doing. The question was: Can we get there?"

Haskins said business leaders at times got "very impatient" that their community counterparts seemed slow to embrace Mayor Martin O'Malley's vision of a biotech park that would capitalize on medical research being done at Hopkins. But he said local leaders had "very legitimate issues" about what they saw as Hopkins' historic lack of concern with the community and the treatment of displaced residents.

"We were able to bridge that gap," he said.

The basic agreements call for an 11-member board to be made up of representatives named by the city, state, Hopkins and the community. Homeowners that have to be relocated will receive up to $70,000 each, in addition to the market value of their property. Agreements on minority participation cover contracting, equity investment and job training, and a community reinvestment component.

New details about the project that emerged yesterday, from interviews and documents, include:

An overall public investment that could reach $200 million over 10 years, of which $20 million is currently in hand;

The channeling of 3 percent of any city bonds and other eligible public funds and up to 2 percent of income from commercial leases in the park, along with a percentage of the money from the sale of any land to developers, into community reinvestment projects; and

A commitment by Hopkins to lease up to $1 million worth of space a year for 10 years in the biotech park, and a separate commitment to contribute an unspecified amount to a pool of private money that would supplement city funds to pay for relocation costs for an estimated 300 homeowners.

Pat Tracey, president of a neighborhood citizens group called the Save Middle East Action Committee, did not attend yesterday's announcement but said later that she was pleased that negotiators had agreed to increase compensation for displaced homeowners by nearly $30,000 from what they had proposed last summer.

"We're pleased with this new package," said Tracey, a 20-year resident of the Middle East community just north of the Hopkins complex whose home is in a block where the first part of the park will be developed.

Tracey said there are still details about the relocation that have yet to be worked out but added, "We wanted to be treated fairly, with respect. They have listened to what we said."

City Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, chair of the committee that will consider amendments to five urban renewal ordinances needed to condemn land for the biotech park and housing, said she expected the legislation would be introduced by the end of the month and would have relatively smooth sailing.

"Having resolved several of the community's major concerns, I don't think we'll have too much opposition," said Branch, who represents East Baltimore.

To assure fairness among sometimes competing community groups, Branch, who helped hammer out the agreements, said negotiators decided not to designate any existing organization to handle the community reinvestment funds. Instead, she said, negotiators agreed that the new board would select a community financial institution to disburse the money.

In her speech, Branch praised Hopkins officials for their "willingness to assist the East Baltimore community."

Hopkins President William R. Brody in turn said the medical institutions couldn't retain their pre-eminence "unless we have a vibrant and vital community" and was among many who praised O'Malley, saying the mayor "sees opportunities where others see problems."

O'Malley hailed the biotech park as a chance "to move past the distrust and stagnation of the past and embrace the possibilities of the future."

"This effort is not going to be a sad chapter of urban renewal," he promised. "We have the opportunity here to rebuild a neighborhood from the ground up."

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