Subpoenas put Balt. Co. developer in the spotlight

Over three decades, Steve Whalen has risen to prominence in Catonsville

August 24, 2012|By Kevin Rector,

Mention development in Catonsville, and the name Stephen Whalen Jr. likely will come up.

Drive around town, and you'll see blue signs staked in people's yards voicing opposition to the local developer's idea to build a large mixed-use development known as the Promenade at Catonsville, partly on the grounds of the Spring Grove Hospital Center campus.

"PromeNOT," the lawn signs read.

Whalen's family company Whalen Properties has become a heavyweight in Baltimore County over three decades with 11 projects — mostly medical and professional offices — under its belt. Meanwhile, he has become a lightning rod in the town. Some people say he has vision; others say his deep pockets sway politicians.

Last week, Whalen Properties' latest project drew unwanted attention, becoming the focus of an investigation by the Office of the State Prosecutor, which subpoenaed eight Baltimore County agencies for records on the planned medical office development, known as the Southwest Physicians Pavilion.

Whalen, county officials and local Councilman Tom Quirk all said they don't know the purpose of the investigation, and few details have emerged. Chief Investigator James I. Cabezas of the state prosecutor's office declined to comment, citing agency policy to neither confirm nor deny any investigation.

The Office of the State Prosecutor investigates public corruption, election law violations and misconduct by public officials, among other crimes. Critics of Whalen — who has not been accused of any wrongdoing — have long voiced concerns about his political contributions, which in recent years have gone to a broad spectrum of local politicians.

Whalen has said such contributions "come with the business," but that there has "never, ever been a quid pro quo" between him and an elected official. He said his company has "followed every rule and expectation" in developing the medical center, which also has drawn community opposition.

Still, the subpoenas add intrigue to an already lively, years-long debate in Catonsville about Whalen's rise to prominence — which began in 1980 when his father, Steve Whalen Sr., decided to gamble his livelihood on his son.

Already in his 60s, the elder Whalen had been running a used car dealership on Frederick Road in Catonsville for more than 25 years, the same one his own father, Milton Whalen, had opened in Pigtown in 1934. He and his wife, Angie, were settled.

Then Whalen Jr. came on board, noticed a dearth of office space around town and convinced his father to transform the dealership into a real estate and property development company.

"We did it without really any experience, but with the thought that we were smart enough to figure it out," the younger Whalen said.

Today, Whalen, who turned 62 in July, is an undisputed force in Catonsville.

He is one of the town's most prominent businessmen, one of its largest property owners and one of the largest donors to local nonprofits. He has poured millions of dollars into the Promenade project, which, with 1.4 million square feet of retail, office, residential, hotel and entertainment space spanning 40 acres and fronting I-695, would be one of the largest developments in Catonsville history.

Local opinions about him vary widely.

"I think he's got a vision, and there are a lot of us — call us the silent majority if you want to, but there are a lot of us — who have that same vision," said George Brookhart, a real estate agent, former president and current board member of the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce.

"I don't like the way he conducts business. I don't like the way he goes out and tells people in our community, 'I've been in this business for 30 years and I haven't lost one yet,' " said Paul Dongarra, a Catonsville resident and frequent Whalen and Promenade critic. "It rubs me the wrong way that people in our community are being run over by his projects."

Maureen Sweeney Smith, a former executive director of the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce and resident of Kenwood Gardens, across from Whalen's latest development , has lost friends over her support of the developer, she said.

"They've really made him into a villain or a demon, and he's not," she said. "He's really one of the best things that's happened to Catonsville."

Whalen seems to revel in the controversy.

"The idea of being a lightning rod doesn't bother me in the least," he said. "In this business, it's about being a visionary, and that's what I've tried to be."

Whalen grew up off Route 40 near the border between Catonsville and Baltimore City, and attended what is now Loyola Blakefield High School in Towson, where he has been involved for years with campus development as captain of his 1967 graduating class.

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