Anne Arundel laments the loss of state workers

Housing, higher-education agencies to relocate

  • The Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development is headquartered at 100 Community Place in Crownsville (above); workers will be moving to New Carrollton.
The Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development… (Barbara Haddock Taylor…)
October 03, 2011|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

A reshuffling of state office space will move nearly 400 workers from around the state capital to Baltimore and Prince George's County — a shift that Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration hopes will spur development around the new offices and make their operations more efficient.

But some Anne Arundel County officials are criticizing the moves as politically motivated, saying that state officials didn't consider the impact on the local economy.

O'Malley, a Democrat, plans to relocate the Department of Housing and Community Development — and about 330 workers — from Crownsville to a new building in Prince George's County as part of a development strategy to cluster commuters around transit hubs. The state has agreed tentatively to a $48 million, 15-year lease at the new property.

The governor also intends to move the Higher Education Commission and its 50 employees from Annapolis to Baltimore, where the Maryland State Department of Education is located. The commission's relocation was first announced last month. The state Board of Public Works is expected to consider a $2.4 million contract to design the new space on West Baltimore Street on Wednesday.

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, a Republican who runs the largely GOP county, questioned whether the deficit-plagued state should take on such costly relocations. He also noted that he wasn't consulted about either move and that he suspected they were motivated by politics. Prince George's County and Baltimore City are considered Democratic strongholds.

"That's the kind of thing you discuss with the government that is losing this space," said Leopold. "The governor believes it's appropriate to waste taxpayers' money when state resources are severely limited. Moving state employees around like pawns on a chessboard during a time of economic distress is not a prudent approach."

O'Malley has promoted the housing department's planned relocation as a way to build a transit-oriented development in New Carrollton, near the Purple Line light rail. The department's headquarters — Prince George's first state agency — would move to a new building that also would include retail and residential space. Last month, the governor discussed the details of the 700,000-square-foot facility, calling it "a modern investment in a modern economy."

Takirra Winfield, an O'Malley spokeswoman, said the long-term savings from relocating the agency, which works on foreclosure prevention and neighborhood revitalization, to an area that has been hit hard by the housing crisis and that also has access to public transportation would far outweigh any upfront costs.

"This is by no means a political move," Winfield said. "It's about smart growth. It's about jobs, about bringing the agency closer to the community it serves the most. The short-term costs are worth it. There's definitely savings in the long term."

The housing department is scheduled to move by 2013.

The Higher Education Commission is planning to move to the state education department in Baltimore in November. State officials have long discussed a possible merger, and those talks continue.

While the losses represent a small portion of the 8,000 state workers based in Anne Arundel, Leopold and other Anne Arundel officials said any loss of workers — and a customer base for neighboring businesses — can hurt, especially in a down economy.

Kenneth Vogel, who owns the western Annapolis building that has housed the Higher Education Commission for the past decade, said the move took him by surprise. He said he recently agreed to lower the $41,000 monthly rent.

"This guy from the state called up and said, 'We're canceling our lease,'" said Vogel, who has owned the single-story building near the Westfield Annapolis Mall for about 15 years. "I said, 'Did you take into consideration that you're going to have to pay a fee to break the lease?' He said, 'No, that's somebody else's job in the agency.' It was stunning."

State Sen. James E. DeGrange, a Democrat who represents Anne Arundel, said he opposes the housing department's move in particular, questioning the fiscal implications.

"If you've got a facility that's already here, why are you going to go out and pay rent? That just doesn't seem to make good fiscal sense to me."

Shiva Reddy, who manages a Subway shop near the department's Crownsville headquarters, says he draws more than 100 state workers for lunch each week, and he's bracing for a lighter lunchtime trade. For weeks, Reddy said, he has heard the agency's workers griping about the move. He said some have claimed they would quit rather than take on a long commute.

"It will definitely affect business," said Reddy, who said he may have to lay off employees if the business is not able to lure other customers. "They have a cafeteria in their building, but my stuff is more healthy."

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