Unfinished business

Our view: Frank won't see city slots plan through, but his efforts won't go to waste

March 11, 2010

Baltimore First Deputy Mayor Andrew B. Frank leaves City Hall this spring after three years of handling economic development, one of the most crucial issues in a city with chronic high unemployment, widespread poverty and sky-high property tax rates. He has served as a crucial bridge between the city's business community and its government and has made important contributions, such as his effort to help push through an affordable-housing law. But he almost certainly won't be around long enough to see through the most important item in his portfolio: slots.

Mr. Frank led the negotiations with the Baltimore City Entertainment Group, the sole bidder for Baltimore's slots license, before the group's bid collapsed late last year. The negotiations dragged on for months, but by all accounts the agreement he arranged for the city was a good one - at the least, it provided more benefits for Baltimore than any of the counties that are home to Maryland's other slots parlors will get. Because the state law authorizing slots required the Baltimore casino to be built on municipal land, Mr. Frank was able to negotiate a deal involving ground rent and other considerations that was expected to net the city more than $20 million a year, on top of what it would already get from its share of state slots revenue. That would have been enough to cut 5 cents from the city's property tax rate - and potentially more in the future, since the payments were tied to the slots parlor's profitability. The more successful it was, the better the deal would become for the city.

But the developer repeatedly missed self-imposed deadlines to submit the additional state licensing fees that would be required to increase its initial 500-machine proposal - far too small to support such a deal with the city - to 3,750 machines, the maximum allowable under the law. The group also failed to submit an updated plan for its site. Late last year, the state slots commission rejected the bid, and the matter is now tied up in the Maryland State Board of Contract Appeals. Even under the most optimistic scenario, the state won't be able to issue a new request for proposals until the summer, after Mr. Frank leaves his post.

But his efforts are far from lost. The state slots commission is likely to work from the model he developed and to specify up front which site or sites the city deems acceptable for a slots parlor. The commission will also likely incorporate the terms of the deal he negotiated as the minimum acceptable standard. That should streamline the process and might also make more bidders willing to come forward.

The Baltimore City Entertainment Group was able to secure the rights to a more desirable parcel of property on Russell Street near the stadiums, and Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake has said she will do what is necessary to make sure that option is available for future bidders. Ambiguity about what location would be available likely hindered bidding last time, as did the uncertainty about what terms the city might seek to extract. With those factors now known - and the economy in not such dire shape as it was during the initial bidding - it's not unreasonable to hope that more potential developers might come forward this time.

It's critical that they do. There are three main factors that have traditionally made the city unattractive to families: crime, the schools and the property tax rate. In the last few years, crime has gone down and student test scores have gone up, but the property tax rate in the city is still more than twice Baltimore County's. The deal Mr. Frank negotiated won't be the kind of game-changer that former Mayor Sheila Dixon envisioned when she switched her position to favor slots nearly three years ago, but at a time when city finances are shrinking, it is the only conceivable avenue to lower the tax rate Baltimore is likely to see in the near future. If Mr. Frank's efforts in City Hall lead to even a gradual reduction in the property tax rate, he would leave a worthy legacy indeed.

Readers respond
This is the reason that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake should have done more to keep Andy. The city will miss him, and he will be hard to replace. Shame on SRB for letting this star go.

Dennis

Frank is an intelligent, shrewd politician. While at the Baltimore Development Corp., he waged war against the more responsible voices at the Planning Department over many controversial development projects.

Ultimately that battle for influence continued when Frank and Planning Department Director Otis Rolley both wound up as senior members of Dixon's cabinet. Frank eventually won that battle, too. Now Frank is off to help Johns Hopkins push through a stalled (and fiercely opposed by many displaced locals), massive east side redevelopment project.

Which speaks to the real issue. The best way for the new Administration to assure all of the taxpaying citizens of Baltimore a voice in the future of this city is to depoliticize the Planning Department. The best way to assure responsible urban planning is to completely isolate the Planning Department from the type of political pressure that produced abominations like the wall of construction obstructing the waterfront along Key Highway.

FaxMam

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