Growth creates chance for city

State plans incentives to encourage workers to move to Baltimore, commute to bases

Base Realignment

May 04, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,Sun reporter

As real estate brokers report the first trickle of what promises to be a torrent of military employees and contractors pouring into Maryland, the state is assembling a package of incentives to encourage first-time homebuyers and renters to move to Baltimore, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown said yesterday.

State leaders want to make the city, with its affordable housing stock and varied transit options, a bedroom community for an estimated 60,000 defense workers and contractors who are predicted to move to Maryland from across the nation to work mainly in and around Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground.

"BRAC presents an enormous potential for Baltimore," Brown said of the base closure and realignment process ordered by the Pentagon that will play out between now and 2011. That is a relatively narrow window to accommodate such a surge of new workers, many of whom are highly paid scientists and engineers.

Brown, designated by Gov. Martin O'Malley to oversee state planning for BRAC, did not provide specifics of the incentive plan, which should be in place by fall.

But Russell Thomas, a spokesman for the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said the incentives would be "even more attractive" than current assistance programs, such as those that cover closing costs and down payments for first-time buyers.

The city's housing commissioner, Paul T. Graziano, said he did not know any details of an incentive program to encourage BRAC workers to locate in the city, but said, "I think it's a great idea."

"Obviously, the city of Baltimore is open for business, as we like to say," Graziano said. "We welcome investment. We welcome people moving in. We have the capacity for them, unlike some of the counties."

Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon, said the mayor's office has been working with Live Baltimore, the nonprofit group that promotes city living, to market the city to military contract workers.

Local and state officials see housing incentives as an important catalyst to revitalize the city, where many neighborhoods remain blighted, filled with homes in need of rehabilitation and vacant lots where dilapidated houses were razed.

But the city is also in the midst of a modest construction boom, especially in waterfront communities such as Canton and near Fort McHenry. Millions of dollars worth of new hotels, retail centers, condos and offices are being built.

About 11,000 housing units are "in the pipeline" in city-sponsored developments such as Uplands and the East Baltimore Development, as well as private projects, Graziano said.

"We have opportunities throughout the city and opportunities in areas that are in close proximity to major highways" convenient to Aberdeen and Fort Meade, he said. "I have no doubt that we can accommodate any influx of people that is a byproduct of BRAC."

Brown, who made his remarks in a speech to the Maryland Association of Realtors, said the city enjoyed a particular advantage in attracting BRAC workers because of its "existing infrastructure."

A key component is the MARC commuter rail system, which has stops in Aberdeen and Odenton, near Fort Meade.

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold said that he viewed MARC as the most effective mechanism to get workers between their homes and offices, and that officials stand the best opportunity to get federal funding for that transit option.

"The federal dollars are scarce, and we have to be realistic about this, so we have to focus best on where we can secure those dollars," Leopold said.

While Baltimore's housing prices are rising, they tend to be much lower than those in wealthier suburban counties around the city and the even pricier areas near Washington.

Attracting BRAC workers to Baltimore would ease the burden on these surrounding counties, which are reeling after years of rapid growth while the city declined.

In some suburban counties, new housing has been curtailed because of the inability to deliver key services such as police or fire protection, as happened in Prince George's County. Or because of inadequate water supplies, as has been the case in Carroll County.

In both Howard and Anne Arundel counties, developers can't build subdivisions that cater to families with young children unless there is already sufficient school capacity. So they have resorted to building senior housing developments restricted to homeowners 55 or older.

City leaders, by contrast, have said that Baltimore's existing infrastructure can accommodate up to 170,000 new residents.

The city has supported a much larger population in the past - in 1950, it had a population of 950,000 residents. That number is almost 50 percent larger than the current population estimate of 635,000.

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