Preservation advocates say Ehrlich has not fulfilled a promise to focus on revitalization

Funding slows for redevelopment projects

March 31, 2006|By TIMOTHY B. WHEELER | TIMOTHY B. WHEELER,SUN REPORTER

Shortly after he was elected, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. sought to put his stamp on the pioneering Smart Growth policies of his predecessor by declaring the state would focus on revitalizing Maryland's older cities, towns and suburbs.

With news releases and presentations of framed plaques, the governor designated six redevelopment projects around the state as Priority Places, including one in West Baltimore. Favored renewal efforts have been promised all the help the state can muster - to sweep away bureaucratic red tape and usher them to the head of the line for whatever state funds, loans or tax breaks might be available.

But financial help has been a trickle so far, and two of the first four redevelopment projects picked last year for special state assistance ran into snags - one in Southern Maryland for mysterious reasons, the other on the Eastern Shore ensnared in a bitter local political controversy.

Though the state is blameless in either situation, the difficulties sap what preservation advocates say is an already anemic effort to boost redevelopment. They have questioned Ehrlich's commitment to the Smart Growth policies of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"It took a long time for any places to be named," said Brad Heavner, director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group. "And when they were, there wasn't a lot behind it. ... I hesitate to say whether he's serious about it or not, but it hasn't amounted to a whole lot."

One of the program's biggest drawbacks, critics say, is the lack of dedicated funding to jump-start typically cash-strapped redevelopment projects.

State Planning Secretary Audrey Scott last year predicted that the governor would steer funds to his signature Smart Growth initiative once the state's budget crunch eased. This year, though a flush budget has allowed Ehrlich to funnel money into a variety of programs, he did not put any into Priority Places.

"While in concept I think the program is good, it really lacks substance in terms of funding provided to local governments to do planning or promote redevelopment," said George Maurer, senior planner with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Douglas Burkhardt, the state planning official recently hired to oversee the Priority Places program, says that it is on track but that it's too early to expect much yet.

"This is a three- to five-year engagement," he said. "A lot of these are in the planning and technical assistance stage, prior to funding."

Burkhardt defended the lack of funding earmarked for Priority Places. "Creating another set of bureaucracies to distribute funds doesn't make a lot of sense," he said. Instead, he contended, the program is set up to help favored projects "leverage resources" from grants and loans in all agencies of state government.

The state has awarded a $300,000 grant so far to one Priority Place, Burkhardt said. It will help the city of Hyattsville in Prince George's County demolish older buildings along U.S. 1 in preparation for downtown redevelopment.

Two more grants totaling $700,000 are to be announced soon for another Priority Places project, he said, though he would not identify the recipient.

"These are complex projects," he said. "They are expensive projects. ... The results of this will be visible not today or tomorrow, but years down the road."

Though Ehrlich first outlined his Priority Places growth strategy in October 2003, it wasn't until February last year that he announced the first two projects to win the competitive selection process. The delay was needed, state officials say, to flesh out the program and solicit applicants.

One of the first two chosen for state help was an ambitious plan by Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development to revitalize the blighted Poppleton neighborhood just west of downtown.

Since its designation, city officials have selected a developer to overhaul the 13.8-acre, horseshoe-shaped tract of aging and mostly vacant houses. City officials hope to arrange local financing for the bulk of the $8.5 million to $10 million needed to acquire and demolish old homes in the neighborhood. They are still waiting word on a request for $500,000 from the state.

Ehrlich visited the Poppleton neighborhood in January to help break ground for the University of Maryland's $300 million BioPark biotechnology center - a state-funded facility that is widely seen as a catalyst for the neighborhood revitalization. "He didn't bring a check," noted Chris Shea, deputy city commissioner for development.

The second community renewal tapped by Ehrlich more than a year ago was an $18.8 million conversion of the dilapidated commercial wharf in Leonardtown, the historic seat of St. Mary's County.

The centerpiece of the wharf revitalization - a 5.5-acre park - has been held up by protracted negotiations between the town and the developer of the private portion of the project over a key sliver of land.

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