Baltimore County executive denounces suggestion for fairgrounds on east side

Councilman who made remark said he gave `no formal proposal'

January 21, 2004|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Proposals for an Asian theme park and, later, a NASCAR track fizzled in the face of public protest. Now comes the latest idea for the same spot on Baltimore County's east side: Move the Maryland State Fairgrounds from Timonium to the site in Middle River - with, perhaps, slot machines.

County Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder's suggestion led the county executive to call in the news media yesterday to denounce the idea. And it had some area residents cringing at the thought of being thrust into the debate surrounding the hot-button issue in state politics.

"God, when are these politicians ever going to learn?" asked Bill Wright, who has lived for nearly 40 years on Bird River Road, not far from the large tract that has been the subject of debate for decades. Tom Lehner, whose family lives in Bowleys Quarters, called Bartenfelder's idea "just another cheesy plan for the east side."

County Executive James T. Smith Jr. made it clear that he favored sticking with the plan to attract high-technology private industry and high-paying jobs to the site, which is in the path of the Route 43 extension under construction. In prepared remarks, he said he "didn't go to Boston and meet with executives from biotech, high-tech and pharmaceutical firms to ask them to bring a pail of quarters to play slots."

"I didn't go looking for low-paying casino jobs and seasonal work at the track," he added. "Maryland taxpayers did not support a $68 million road to serve as a driveway for casinos."

Yesterday, Bartenfelder attempted to put his words in context.

"I made no formal proposal," he said. "Somebody said the fairgrounds in Timonium are too congested, and I said that maybe you move it all to the county's east side and it would be a win-win for everybody, with the new highway coming in."

But those comments were, he said, "small talk, a point for discussion."

"I also suggested we all look at the old Bethlehem Steel property, and then I see today the county executive holding a press conference to shoot down my idea," he said. "That's crazy."

While Smith might be looking forward to the development of the 1,100-acre parcel on Eastern Boulevard near Martin State Airport, known as the A.V. Williams property, longtime residents have unpleasant memories about the site.

For decades, developers have proposed everything from the Asian theme park - Worldbridge, which flopped in 1991 - to the plan for a high-speed raceway that died several years later. Several automakers were also interested in the tract but eventually abandoned the idea because of the location's lack of accessibility.

County officials are planning to attract technology and pharmaceutical businesses to locate along the White Marsh Boulevard extension. New homes are planned on the other side of the road.

The extension will empty into Eastern Boulevard where, some planners hope, upgraded waterfront communities and shoreline attractions will be located.

Bartenfelder's suggestion to relocate the fair coincides with an exploration by the Maryland Stadium Authority into financing construction in Baltimore of a racing facility with a slots entertainment feature.

But residents like Wright in eastern Baltimore County's waterfront region, where more than $800 million has been invested in community redevelopment, are leery of politicians and developers casting a covetous eye on their neighborhood.

"For the longest time, when there was something to be dumped on a community, all eyes turned to Middle River or Dundalk," said Wright, a 70-year-old retired steel worker.

"Casino slots are another thing to sneak in and bring the community down," said Wright. "I think the slower redevelopment with quality jobs and homes is the way to go."

Wright said his neighbors, including members of church groups, plan to fight state-run gambling in their community. "Not only the issue do they want to go away, they are looking to make the politician get defeated."

Although Bartenfelder said he had spoken with local business people, an officer of the largest merchant group in the region said his organization was not consulted by the councilman.

"We were not contacted about a public discussion" on the idea, said Frank Pommett, an attorney and president of the 400-member Essex-Middle River-White Marsh Chamber of Commerce.

Pommett said his organization has taken no position on Bartenfelder's suggestion.

"Joe is a nice guy and has the east side at heart," Pommett said. "But we're not sure where his idea came from."

Sun staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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