Plans for tech center in peril

Ohio company considers dropping its pursuit of Bainbridge location

`We have a good Plan B'

Berkshire notes scrutiny, contract delay as factors

November 02, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The proposed creation of a 500-acre technology park in Port Deposit - a project that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. called an economic development "home run" for the state - is in danger of falling apart, as did another grandiose development plan for the former Bainbridge Naval Training Center.

"It is with regret that I must inform you that the time has come for Berkshire to pursue alternative locations for its operation," Mark G. Mortenson, a consultant and patent attorney for Berkshire Laboratories Inc. said in a recent letter to the Bainbridge Development Corp.

The BDC, as the group is commonly called, is a quasi-public agency created by the General Assembly in 1999 to oversee the development of 1,200-acre former Navy boot camp on a hill overlooking Port Deposit and the Susquehanna River.

Berkshire is a small and little-known company based in Columbus, Ohio, that captured the attention of state and Cecil County officials last summer when it announced a plan to use its patented technology as the nucleus for the formation of a technology center at Bainbridge. Berkshire officials said the center eventually could employ 3,000 workers.

The property would be developed by a group of companies commonly referred to as the Manekin group. It includes Richard M. Alter, president of Manekin LLC in Columbia; Clark Turner, president of Bel Air-based Clark Turner Cos.; and John Paterakis, a commercial developer in Baltimore.

The state and Cecil County don't want to lose Berkshire.

It would be the biggest or the second-biggest development project in the state," Aris Melissaratos, secretary of business and economic development, said in September.

Economic potential

W. Paul Gilbert, director of Cecil County's economic development office, said Berkshire's proposal "has the potential of making Cecil County, almost overnight, a major hub of technology on the East Coast."

After touring the Bainbridge property in September, the governor said the state was buying into the Berkshire project. "It's exciting," he said. "It's important. The opportunity here is unlimited."

The company's threat to abandon its efforts to locate at Bainbridge is in response to intense scrutiny from a citizens group, and delays in reaching a contract with the BDC resulting from legislative criticism of the BDC's negotiating methods, including its behind-closed-doors meetings.

Mortenson said Friday that Berkshire has pursued other potential sites that would allow it to move into a headquarters building quickly. He declined to talk about the other sites.

"We have lots of ties to Cecil County," he said, "but we are not so much in love with it that we are insane. We are very happy that we have a good Plan B."

Mortenson added: "The Manekin team has asked us to hang in there and give them one more shot at winning BDC support. We've agreed to a narrow window [of time] to negotiate with the BDC as long as something happens quickly. We're not measuring in weeks, but days."

Much of the opposition to Berkshire comes from a group called Citizens for Economic Development at Bainbridge (CEDAB).

The group, which says it has about 75 members, questions the company's ability to transform its technology into commercial products.

CEDAB members have argued that the BDC has not done the homework needed to determine whether Berkshire's technology is sufficiently proven for a venture at Bainbridge and warns that it could be 10 to 20 years before there is an economic return.

Harlan C. Williams, co-chairman of CEDAB, said he is not opposed to Berkshire, but he thinks the BDC should have a greater understanding of the company's business before devoting 500 acres to its planned technology park.

The possible loss of a prospect with such great potential has greatly angered Charles Robert "Rob" Flayhart, the mayor of Port Deposit.

He sees Berkshire adding to the economic stability of Port Deposit and calls critics of the company's plan a "threat to the town's chances to prosper."

"I don't understand it," he said. "The Town Council and the BDC adopted a vision plan for Bainbridge years ago. It included mixed use - a combination of light industry, commercial development, residential, open space and revitalization of the Tome School.

"We have a group of developers willing to fulfill this vision, and all of a sudden members of the BDC board want to change the plan. They are opposed to Berkshire. I'm very upset. This doesn't make sense. It's not fair. They are depriving the town of a chance to thrive."

In early September, directors of the BDC voted to give a development team the authority to negotiate an agreement to locate its headquarters on a 2-acre parcel at Bainbridge.

The agreement opened the doors to Berkshire and other companies seeking to commercialize its technology to eventually take over 500 acres of the Bainbridge property.

There were timeline safeguards in the agreement that would require the property to be returned to the BDC if Berkshire did not meet outlined development goals.

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