Delay of vote blew deal, say critics

Developers say canceling of Bainbridge meeting led group to pull out of plan

Analysis

November 16, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Critics of Bainbridge Development Corp.'s failure to nail down the latest proposal for the redevelopment of the former naval training center point to Cynthia Rossetti, the agency chairwoman, and say she blew it.

They say that Rossetti's decision to delay a critical vote Monday night cost Cecil County the biggest development project in its history - the restoration of a 1,200-acre Navy base that closed nearly 30 years ago.

The vote would have applied only to a proposed 500-acre technology park, but when the decision on this portion of the project was delayed, the development team hoping to do the work spiked its plans for all of Bainbridge and walked away.

But others say the Bainbridge negotiations were doomed from the start, or at the very least significantly threatened by bitter community opposition stemming from the behind-closed-doors meetings that marked much of the discussions between the BDC and the development team over the past year.

The secret meetings fueled suspicion and mistrust among Port Deposit-area residents and heated their opposition to the technology park as well as to the residential component on the other 700 acres at Bainbridge.

"There was no trust," said Phyllis Kilby, a member of the Cecil County Board of Commissioners whose district includes Bainbridge. "Everyone was shut out. Business was conducted behind closed doors."

She continued: "The people were not part of the give-and-take process. The people were not part of the questioning. The people were not part of the debate. Of course we lose trust when the public is not really a part of the process."

The BDC is a quasi-public agency created by the General Assembly in 1999 to oversee the development of Bainbridge.

The developers, commonly referred to as the Manekin team, who have been negotiating with the BDC to develop the property include Richard 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 500-acre technology park was to have housed Berkshire Laboratories Inc., a small, privately funded Columbus, Ohio-based company with patented technology that it claimed would revolutionize several industries and create 3,000 jobs at Bainbridge.

Berkshire and the Manekin team pulled out of the Bainbridge negotiations last weekend when they learned of Rossetti's plan to delay the board's vote on the technology park portion of Bainbridge.

In a full-page advertisement Thursday in The Record in the form of a letter to the residents of Port Deposit and Cecil County, Alter and Turner said the vote Monday represented their last chance to accommodate Berkshire. "Berkshire had already informed us they were not prepared to wait any longer," they wrote.

"I didn't understand the big rush," said Kilby. "I get suspicious when somebody tries to rush something through, especially something as complex as a real estate contract."

Even one of the most outspoken critics of Rossetti's delay of the vote on the technology park, county Commissioner Nelson K. Bolender, put some of the blame for the collapse of the negotiations on the secret meetings.

"Yes, I think [the closed-door meetings] probably hurt the process," Bolender said. "But what hurt the most," he added, "was that the board didn't even get a chance to vote on the project because the chairman canceled the meeting."

A BDC meeting in early March, under the direction of then-Chairman Harland R. Graef, was typical of the group's negotiating process.

When it was time for the board to discuss giving the Manekin team a 60-day extension of its exclusive rights to negotiate a contract to develop the property, Graef ushered the public and members of the press from the room.

Kilby was at the meeting. She held her ground in the back of the BDC office on the second floor of the Port Deposit Paw Paw Museum building, saying the meeting should be open to the public. She said that Graef would have to physically remove her.

Kilby was allowed to stay, but other members of the public stood outside for two hours waiting for the discussion to end.

Robert Atkinson, who lives just outside the gate of Bainbridge, was at the meeting. "What are you trying to hide?" he shouted to Graef as he was being herded to the door.

Rossetti, who at the time was not on the BDC board, also was critical of Graef's action. She said that the state has sunshine laws pertaining to public meetings "to generate public trust. This generates public distrust."

Graef said his closed-door executive sessions followed the state's public-meeting laws when dealing with contract negotiations.

"But they hindered the process," Atkinson said Friday. "They had everything to do with the failed negotiations, absolutely everything. The secrecy caused all the problems. If things were done in the open, I think they would have gotten their contract."

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