22 apply for state funds for building

Priority Places is Ehrlich initiative to stir development in older areas

But 2 key projects not among applicants

September 04, 2004|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

The state has received 22 applications from developers and communities across Maryland looking to take advantage of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s new Priority Places anti-sprawl program - which promises state help with building projects in already developed areas.

Deputy Planning Secretary Florence E. Burian said yesterday that she was "thrilled" with the response to the Ehrlich initiative, even though two ambitious redevelopment projects that state officials had promoted as ideal candidates did not apply.

She declined to provide details about the proposals received by Wednesday's deadline until other state agencies had seen them but did release a list that generally identifies each project seeking state help.

The projects stretch from Frostburg in Western Maryland to Caroline County on the Eastern Shore, with two in Baltimore and one in Annapolis. Sixteen came from city or town governments, four from private developers, and one each from a nonprofit group and a county.

Conspicuously absent from the list, though, were the ambitious effort to redevelop Baltimore's west-side downtown and the private developer working to transform an abandoned shopping center near Annapolis into a $400 million "lifestyle center" featuring stores, restaurants, offices and homes.

Ehrlich unveiled his Priority Places strategy last fall after touring Baltimore's west-side renewal, anchored by the restored Hippodrome Theatre. And state Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott used the ceremonial demolition of the old Parole Plaza in July as the forum for announcing details of the new program. Before a crowd of several hundred dignitaries and onlookers, she publicly invited the developer of the Towne Centre at Annapolis to be the first to apply.

Priority Places represents Ehrlich's attempt to shift the focus of the nationally recognized Smart Growth program launched in 1997 by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, which seeks to curb suburban sprawl by limiting state funding for roads, schools and other services to existing communities.

Building projects and community revitalization plans selected under the new program would be offered the coordinated technical help of all state agencies, given "fast-track" regulatory reviews and be put first in line for any state grants that are available - though officials acknowledge that because of the state's fiscal crisis, the program has no dedicated funding.

Though some have suggested the lack of funding handicaps the program, executives of the two projects that did not apply said it was more a question of timing than the attractiveness of the state's help.

Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance Inc., the nonprofit group coordinating public and private efforts, said the state is already providing financial help with parts of the 28-block downtown renewal, and none of the various building projects under way or in planning seemed ready to seek the kind of assistance that the new program could provide.

"We intend to be a part of the Priority Places program," said Kreitner, a former state planning director. "It was a simple issue of whether there was a particular project right at this point in time that was appropriate to submit."

Brian J. Gibbons, president of Greenberg Commercial Corp., which is redeveloping the former Parole mall, said his Owings Mills firm did not apply because it was still working out details of the project.

"It's a very complicated application," Gibbons said, "and we didn't want to just throw something together that's not accurate."

Both said they expect to seek Priority Places designation, possibly when the next round of applications is due in three months.

"Certainly, we hoped they would be among the first to apply," said Burian. "But we understand that there are things that stand in the way of getting that done. And I hope that we'll hear from them for the next round in December."

That's also when state officials expect to announce their selections of the first group of Priority Places. Officials have indicated they might pick up to a half-dozen, though the decision depends on the quality of the applications.

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