Development board ushers in open meetings with light agenda, nary a member of the general public

A peek into the city's open secret

A peek into Baltimore's open secret

November 17, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

Baltimore Development Corp. board Chairman Arnold L. Williams steps out of the elevator, strides over to his agency's glass entryway and pulls on one of the doors. It doesn't budge.

"See?" he says with a wink. "It's a closed meeting."

Not really. Not anymore.

It's seven-something in the morning, most of Baltimore is too sleepy to realize or care, but for the first time, the door to BDC's normally shuttered boardroom has swung wide open.

Yesterday's monthly meeting was the agency's first since Maryland's highest court declared the BDC, the city's famously secretive economic development arm, a public body that must open its books and meetings.

Though the agenda was light and the discussion less than scintillating - with topics too mundane for the board to even bother breaking into a closed session - the morning offered a glimpse into how BDC has operated since its inception in 1991. It was a peep at the decision-makers who behind closed doors have been doling out lucrative tax breaks, deciding who builds what and where, and generally shaping what Baltimore becomes.

Thinking earlier this week about what this new era of openness might reveal about the BDC, board member Clarence T. Bishop, who is also Mayor Martin O'Malley's chief of staff, said, "I think that folks are going to end up bored to death."

Since not a single member of the public showed up yesterday, Bishop had no chance to be proven right.

But reporters - they showed up en masse, representing at least four print organizations and two television stations. They filled seats along a windowed wall that offered spectacular views of the morning traffic thickening below on Charles Street. Board members and BDC staff chose seats at the long, long conference table.

Even if all 13 BDC board members showed up - which didn't happen - they would all have to be terribly hungry to polish off the dozens of bagels and muffins, not to mention the fruit tray.

The meeting started with the traditional calling of order, the approving of minutes and the rehashing of pleasantries since everyone last convened.

Indulging their "guests," board members took time to introduce themselves.

The most revelatory moments came as BDC President M.J. "Jay" Brodie recapped the agency's failed negotiations with the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation over the six-block west-side redevelopment known as "the superblock."

One BDC executive said afterward that he's heard the story so often that when it comes up he usually excuses himself. Brodie compellingly described the soured partnership.

He told of the courtship, of how Weinberg executives were so enamoured with a BDC deal that they flew a trustee all the way in from Hawaii to hear about it, of a "lovely lunch" at the Center Club where Brodie sat next to Baltimore developer David Cordish, of representatives from both sides walking the west side "for two hours on a beautiful day."

And then Brodie told of it all falling apart, of the regretful letters O'Malley sent to Weinberg executives, of BDC's move to seize the foundation's superblock properties and even of the brief resurrection of hope that, despite everything, the two sides could still pull off a deal.

"We're not naive people in the business," Brodie said, "and at least twice in these negotiations we thought we were in total agreement and each time [Weinberg's president and chief executive Shale D.] Stiller would come back with five or six new ideas that had never been discussed before."

Meanwhile, Brodie added, Chera Feil Goldman Group, the New York team BDC chose to develop the superblock, has asked for an extension to their negotiating term with Baltimore, which expires Dec. 31.

Moving on, the group heard about companies the agency is working to keep in town - no shockers on the list - and then discussed a funeral home that got a small-business loan and some winning bidders to develop city property.

Though land awards are just the sort of BDC decisions that some in the city have long wanted to hear more about, these were smallish deals - one involving a potential Red Roof Inn for downtown and another deciding the fate of what board member Deborah Hunt Devan repeatedly described as "a little nubbin of land."

Since the little nubbin sits in the middle of the H&S Properties and Struever Brothers' sprawling Harbor East development, they got it.

When things adjourned after about an hour, Bishop declared the session "regular." BDC Executive Vice President Andrew Frank jokingly introduced a member of the staff as "the director of shredding."

Bishop promised that the sessions won't always be so light. There will be controversy, tough decisions and meaningful deals, he said.

Of course, since Brodie has said that most of BDC's doings are likely exempt from the state's open meetings law, that's probably when the big paneled doors will shut once again.

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