Deadline for Westport holdout

Concrete business must move by tomorrow to make room for planned development in neighborhood

August 24, 2008|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,annie.linskey@baltsun.com

The final holdouts standing in the way of a $1.4 billion development planned in Baltimore's Westport neighborhood must pack this weekend and move off the property by tomorrow, but they haven't been going quietly.

The owners of a concrete company on the Westport site, Dennis and Gerry Brice, say the move could put an end to their 40-employee business. They believe the city should provide $1.9 million in financial assistance to help them relocate, pointing to the fact that the City Council is considering a $90 million bond to build and improve infrastructure supporting the planned development.

"If they cared about our business and our employees, they would do more to keep us in the city," said Gerry Brice, who has been in business with his brother for 23 years. "They've said they want to keep us in the city, but their actions suggest otherwise."

But in interviews with current and former city officials and the developer, all say they've worked for more than two years to smooth the way for the Brices' move, including extending the lease twice, helping the brothers look for other land, offering rent-free storage on city land for six months and low-interest loans.

Additionally, the city has paid $42,000 to subsidize the Brices' rent since January, and the Baltimore Development Corp. offered an additional $70,000 to pay for some moving expenses.

The Brices feel they are owed more, a situation that highlights the anguish a large development can cause for those beneath its footprint and the elaborate behind-the-scenes negotiations that take place to placate - or try to placate - the smaller parties involved.

"When there are relocations of business in order for some other project, or some new project, they are generally uncomfortable situations," said Clarence Bishop, who was chief of staff to then-Mayor Martin O'Malley in 2006 when the project was planned.

Bishop recalled working with the developer, Patrick Turner of Turner Development Group, to be sure that the Brice brothers would be relocated.

He heard about the Brice brothers' complaints and checked in with city officials. "It sounds like BDC was not only going the second mile, but the third, fourth and fifth mile to be helpful to the company."

D&G Brice concrete company was incorporated 23 years ago as a trucking firm. About 1995, it began making concrete, leasing a parcel of land in Westport near the light rail and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway entrance ramp with a commanding view of the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

The Brices rented from LaFarge MidAtlantic LLC, a company that supplied them with sand and stone to manufacture concrete. They payed $5,000 a month and mixed concrete for Maryland Shock Trauma Center, the Spinnaker Bay Hotel, the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, risers around the Ravens stadium and the exterior concrete on a rental parking garage at BWI. "We have a lot of the Baltimore skyline," Gerry Brice said.

In 2006, when it became clear that Turner Development Group was eyeing their land, the Brices thought they had a deal with the city that guaranteed that their company would be relocated as part of the Westport project. But they never got anything to that effect in writing.

Encouraged by the city, Turner and the Brices began looking for other property for the business. They considered a nearby property at Wicomico and South Monroe streets. Turner said he signed a $2.5 million contract to purchase it with the idea that the Brices could move their concrete plant there.

In late 2006, a consulting company estimated it would cost $12 million to relocate the Brices including constructing a new concrete plant. The current one, according to the letter, includes equipment that dates to the 1970s and is "functionally obsolete."

Included in the cost would be "bringing the plant into compliance with environmental regulations mandated by the Clean Water act."

But the deal fell through, and both parties walked away. "We bent over backward for him," Turner said in a phone interview. "We want to do the right thing. We don't want to displace some person's business."

By late 2007, Turner was set to buy the land under the Brices' plant. And the Brices' company was having its own trouble with the IRS. They owed $4.8 million in back taxes according to an October 2007 article in The Baltimore Business Journal. Gerry Brice said last week that the federal government was mistaken and they are fighting that finding.

Turner moved forward with his plans, buying the 6.9-acre Westport parcel from LaFarge for $2.6 million in January, according to property records. He wanted to start his project.

City officials balked, not wanting to put the Brices out of business. Under pressure from City Hall, Turner agreed to let the Brices continue operating and lease from him for seven months. "Reluctantly we said fine. We'll let him stay until July," Turner said. "Our project was being held up."

Turner increased the rent to $18,000 a month. The city stepped in, agreeing to pay $6,000 a month, according to the lease.

July came, and Turner attempted to take over his property, at one point calling law enforcement to the gates.

Again the city intervened, calling off Turner and buying the company a few more weeks, according to M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp.

City Hall officials offered the company a plot of land in South Baltimore where the Brices could move their equipment, rent-free, for six months, Brodie said. Also, they offered $70,000 to offset moving costs. The Brices said the offer was only for three months.

"We would like to keep them in the city, but we cannot simply write checks," Brodie said.

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