Last-minute bid ups ante in Middle River

Online auction of site extended 24 hours

September 15, 2006|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun reporter

Going once ...

Going twice ...

Wait a minute!

A historic Martin aircraft manufacturing plant in Middle River was nearly sold yesterday to an anonymous developer for $35.1 million.

But less than four minutes before the deadline for bids in an online auction, a rival bidder upped the ante. The $35.2 million offer extended the auction at least another 24 hours.

The two rivals - both using code names - battled it out with three more electronically submitted bids yesterday afternoon, raising the purchase price to $35.6 million.

Watching the minute-by-minute action online has become something of an obsession for people in commercial real estate and for Baltimore County officials.

"We have a group who sit and stare at the screen and keep hitting `refresh.' Lots of people throughout the county, people who know the building, have gotten caught up in this," said Fronda J. Cohen, a spokeswoman for Baltimore County's Department of Economic Development. "Everyone is intrigued with the strategy."

"They call me every time a bid is made," Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said yesterday. "This is a very significant auction for Baltimore County, particularly with the renaissance in Essex and Middle River. It's been fun to watch."

The county is counting on a redevelopment to transform the 1.9 million-square-foot property, a part of the former World War II-era bomber plant, into a hub of new homes, shops and offices.

The development would be centered on a MARC train station on 50 acres near Martin State Airport at Eastern Boulevard and the soon-to-be-extended Route 43.

The auction is run by the federal General Services Administration as a way to dispose of surplus government property. It has no firm closing date. Instead, the highest bid submitted before midnight on a given day stands - unless a higher bid comes in by 2 p.m. on the next weekday.

The bid on Middle River Station, as the property is now called, is the highest the government has ever received for a property online since the GSA started running Web auctions five years ago, said MaryAnne Beatty, a GSA spokeswoman.

"This auction is consistent with others but has run a little longer due to the intensity of the bidding which is driving the auction," she said. "GSA views the Middle River Station as a valuable asset, and the bidders have confirmed that vision."

The Web site,, displays an up-to-the minute listing of bid amount and time submitted. Bidders are identified by "screen names," such as "Bomber," "Marauder" and "26," a likely salute to the building's history of manufacturing B-26 Marauders.

Since Bomber made the first bid for $10.5 million on July 5, seven bidders have joined in. Marauder dropped out Aug. 31, leaving only 26 and Believe1 in the mix.

This week, the two have raised the stakes even more while increasing the frequency of the bids, often moving up in $100,000 increments.

On Tuesday, just after 11 p.m., Believe1 bumped its bid up to $35 million, topping 26's standing bid of $30.3 million by nearly $5 million.

Three days in a row, last-hour bids have come each day to extend the suspense.

When bidding rose above $20 million, "I'm thinking, now we've got someone with imagination and creativity looking beyond using the existing warehouse capacity," said Smith, who guessed the auction would end soon.

"It speaks to the ... high regard investors and businesses have for eastern Baltimore County, but this has reached a point where you have to look at the bottom line," he said.

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