Official's link to developer raises concern

Arundel executive backs bill to aid builder's project

St. John donates event space

Owens rejects criticism of support for `win-win' plan

March 15, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Tonight, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens will seek County Council approval for $2.6 million in assistance to help a developer build a technology park near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Tomorrow night, the same developer's Annapolis office building will serve as the site of "An Evening with Janet S. Owens," a $1,000-a-head fund-raiser for the second-term county leader. Her campaign will accept the gift of space as an in-kind contribution.

The county executive says she is holding the fund-raiser in developer Edward A. St. John's building because she's proud of the office space she's brought to the county. She says she is proposing the bond issue to support development that will lead to job growth.

St. John, the president and chief executive of Catonsville-based MIE Properties Inc., says he agreed to provide space for the fund-raiser because it's an opportunity for him to show off his building at 888 Bestgate Road.

With the county's help, his company plans to build 600,000 square feet of speculative office and warehouse space on a 90-acre site near the airport. But some residents say they're concerned that Owens is giving special treatment to a major developer who has contributed to her campaigns.

"He certainly has a key to the door," said Don Yeskey, president of an umbrella group of Annapolis-area civic associations who previously opposed another St. John development. "From the way I can see things happening, he doesn't get turned down very often, if at all."

The incentive plan also has council members asking questions.

"It concerns me a little," said Councilman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican. "But, you know, it's the nature of the political beast we've created. We're allowed to take contributions from people whom the county does business with. It's neither good nor bad. It's just the way it is."

Owens waves away any connection between St. John's contributions and her decision to call for a bond issue that would benefit his project. She said that MIE had sought the bond issue for a while and that she was cautious about supporting it. "It has to be an economic win-win," she said.

The Millersville Democrat has had a closely scrutinized relationship with the county's developers. She was first elected in 1998 after she campaigned against big developer contributions. But leading up to the 2002 election, firms with ties to development accounted for about one-quarter of her $600,000 in contributions.

Although term limits will force Owens from office in 2006, tomorrow will mark her second major fund-raiser since the last election. She could use the money to run for another position or to donate to other campaigns.

St. John, whose company has developed nearly a dozen Anne Arundel County projects, has been an Owens supporter. She has twice tapped him to serve on county advisory committees. And according to state finance records for Owens' 2002 campaign, a St. John business venture donated $3,000. The maximum gift for one campaign cycle is $4,000 per person or corporation. St. John's wife, Kathleen, made three contributions totaling $1,600.

Tomorrow, Owens supporters who have paid $250 (for the regular reception) or $1,000 (for the VIP reception) will gather on the top floor of St. John's glass-walled Annapolis building.

`Critical' location

St. John said Owens called him, told him he had built the prettiest new building in Anne Arundel and said she wanted to hold a fund-raiser there.

"I thought, `My God, this is an opportunity for me to have 1,000 business people see the building and possibly rent the vacant top floor,'" St. John said. "It's a no-brainer for me."

His new project, known as BWI Technology Park, is slated for an area Owens calls the "Gold Coast" and considers crucial to creating jobs. "That location is critical," she said.

MIE estimates that the development could create 1,500 new jobs. But to build on the Nursery Road site, MIE must make $2.6 million in improvements, said Thomas J. Pilon, MIE's development director. Those include adding to the ramp from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, widening Nursery Road for about half a mile from the Parkway toward Hammonds Ferry Road, and creating water and sewer hookups.

Owens, her aides and Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle said the improvements would also benefit developers seeking to build a hotel and gas station nearby.

If Owens' proposal is approved, the county would issue $2.6 million in 25-year bonds - at a lower interest rate than MIE could obtain. That money would go to MIE to pay for the necessary road widening, water and sewer hookups, and other infrastructure for the project.

The money would be paid back, officials said, with the increased property tax money generated by the development. By county projections, MIE's technology park will generate about $315,000 a year, more than enough to cover the estimated $175,000 a year needed to pay off the bonds.

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