No to Dundalk prison

November 21, 2003

AS ECONOMIC development proposals go, there could hardly be a worse idea than constructing a 1,750-bed prison on a prime waterfront site between the Dundalk Marine Terminal and the Key Bridge.

A Florida company's plan to turn the 101-acre Riverside Power Plant parcel into a privately operated federal prison would:

Kill Dundalk's hopes for revival.

Doom Turners Station, a historic African-American community that was the home for many black workers after Bethlehem Steel built its Sparrows Point plant nextdoor in 1890.

Halt the transformation of the industrial shoreline between thriving Canton and Dundalk, where "the waterfront represents simultaneously the most underutilized and most promising asset under consideration," according to a study by Towson University's RESI economic research institute.

For these reasons, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. must join the elected officials' chorus of opposition and urge Attorney General John Ashcroft to drop this terrible idea. Dundalk needs revitalization, not strangulation.

Even though the loss of Bethlehem Steel and other smokestack industries has diminished the town's population and vitality, Dundalk offers solid houses at affordable prices close to Baltimore's downtown and the interstate network. Its retail land and industrial shoreline are ripe for job creation in more beneficial re-use than a prison.

Dundalk has long suffered from an image problem. During Bethlehem Steel's glory days, it was a company town, and visibly different. Leaves on its trees were seldom green, but seemed to have a permanent coating of rust. The rhythm of Dundalk life also was different: Its taverns were rocking and rolling as early as 7 a.m. with lobster shift workers having a nightcap.

There was a more genteel Dundalk as well, where steel managers lived in houses that had been designed by the same developer that built Baltimore's prestigious Roland Park. For leisure, they had a club and golf course overlooking the Chesapeake.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. should take the unwelcome prison proposal as a timely alarm bell. If the county does not accelerate Dundalk revitalization, private investors will pre-empt the local government's plans.

The Riverside Power Plant illustrates this point. The 1951 plant, which was decommissioned in the early 1990s, has not been actively marketed, according to Constellation Energy. Nevertheless, it has captured the real estate sharks' imagination. So this poisonous prison proposal should be quickly quashed, and the search for a better option begun.

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