Is Port Covington's price worth the promise? | WYPR

Is Port Covington's price worth the promise?

Jul 27, 2016

Artist's rendering of new Under Armour headquarters
Credit Sagamore Development

  Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s plan to develop Port Covington holds out the promise of jobs, affordable homes and millions in revenue for Baltimore City. Some people are excited about what’s to come, while others are wary about whether those promises can be kept, and if those promises are for them.

When you ask someone about the project, the response you get seems to depend on where you are in the city.

At McHenry Row, in Locust Point near Port Covington, Liz Rivera was fueling up at Dunkin Donuts. She lives near Patterson Park and says she loves Baltimore and is all for anything that makes a part of the city better.

“As far as I know there’s not much over there at all right now.”

Rivera is right about that.

Much of Port Covington is an open field. Plank’s Sagamore Spirit Distillery is under construction. Look for that to open later this year. The Baltimore Sun’s printing plant is still there but eventually will be relocated There is an Under Armour office building in what was once a Sam’s Club. And there is a shuttered Wal Mart. But that building was back in business last weekend, hosting a sale of Under Armour products.

A D.J. played Justin Bieber while shoppers browsed dozens of racks of Under Armour gear.

Carol Davis, who lives in Otterbein, scored some leggings and a t-shirt for her husband. She says she thinks the Port Covington plan is terrific, because it will provide jobs.

“It’s expanding the growth of the city outward to neighborhoods that do need opportunities, which we view this as a plus,” Davis says.

But there are those who are skeptical, like Minister Glenn Smith with the New Promised Land Community Church in West Baltimore. Smith is still smarting over the potential jobs that were lost when Gov. Larry Hogan killed the red line rail project.

“How can I be encouraged by Port Covington when you did that to my community,” he asks.

Then there is Tamara Purnell, a Republican running for city council in West Baltimore’s 7th district. Purnell says she remembers promises made and broken in the past.

“We hear about the TIFs. We hear about the jobs. And it never happens,” she complains.

TIF stands for Tax-Increment Financing. As part of the Port Covington deal, the city would float TIF bonds totaling $535 million. Those bonds would be paid for by the property taxes raised by the project over decades, not out of the city’s budget.

But TIFs come with risks. There is always the chance the developer would bail on the project once bonds are issued or that the development would not make enough to pay off the debt. Officials say they’ve put safeguards in place in case any of that happens.

But there are those like Councilman Carl Stokes, who say if the city is willing to go there, Kevin Plank’s Sagamore Development Company needs to belly up to the bar too, and ink a major, binding city wide benefits agreement.

“Given that we’re almost the first investor, certainly the second investor behind Sagamore, then we ought to expect a strong return on our investment,” Stokes says.

Perhaps the biggest return on investment is Port Covington’s promise of 25,000 permanent jobs, not to mention those in construction. Stokes and others want Plank to promise to fill at least 51 percent of all of those jobs with city workers.

But Tom Geddes, CEO of Plank Industries, says it’s important not to saddle the deal with unrealistic requirements.

“If you take 51 percent of the projected construction jobs, off the top of my heard that might be 21,450 construction jobs,” he says. “And to mandate all of those have to be hired out of the city of Baltimore today, would unfortunately be unrealistic that we would have people who are project ready.”

In the next couple of weeks, Geddes says, they will be announcing plans for a Workforce Development program in the city. The goal is to get more city residents trained for the jobs that are coming to Port Covington.

Another part of the $5.5 billion development plan is 7,500 residences. Sagamore Development agreed to make 10 percent of those residences affordable housing. Councilman Stokes and others say it should be at least 20 percent.

Marc Weller, the president of Sagamore Development, says as things stand now, a 20 percent affordable housing target isn’t financially feasible; 10 percent will work.

“The affordable housing component is very, very robust, and we feel as if it’s the largest of its kind that has ever been signed in the city,” Weller says.

He adds that Sagamore is looking for ways to create more affordable housing in Port Covington and in other parts of the city.

Westport is a depressed neighborhood on the middle branch of the Patapsco River, west of the Hanover Street Bridge. In the distance, past the bridge, you can see Port Covington.

The neighborhood is one of the places that hopes to catch an economic wave from the Port Covington project and one of six South Baltimore neighborhoods that signed a deal with Sagamore Development. It’s expected to mean $40 million in support for those neighborhoods over the next 30 years.

Florence Ford, who was born in Westport in 1940 and has lived there for much of her life, is one of those who heard big promises before, of big development that would turn Westport around. But for now, she’s more worried about the neighbors who don’t take care of their homes and have yards full of trash and garbage.

“And they got rat holes this big coming out of their yard,” Ford says. “And I sit out on my back deck and I sit there and it’s like an underground city back there.”

Then there’s Loren Duffey, a real estate agent, who works in Westport. Duffey says there are good homes in the neighborhood with views of the water that would sell for only about $60,000.

A lot of his business, however, is in shells; homes that need to be completely reworked. They go for around $20,000. People buy them but they don’t renovate right away because home prices are too low to make it worth their while to fix them up and sell them. So they wait.

Duffey says the Port Covington project could do great things for the neighborhood. The light rail stops in Westport, and a spur could link the neighborhood to Port Covington. So could plans to fix an old railroad swing bridge and turn it over to pedestrians. But it’s not a panacea, he says.

For one thing, the city ought to lean on landlords to clean up their properties, “versus letting them sit and stew, like they’ve been doing for the last couple of years.”

Port Covington itself has been sitting and stewing for years. The property is virtually cut off from downtown by Interstate 95. Sagamore’s plan is to reattach Port Covington to the rest of Baltimore through roads, light rail, and bike paths. Under Armour plans to put its global headquarters there, and have it be part of the city. But Geddes cautions that you can’t expect the project to touch every family in Baltimore.

“We wish it could,” he says. “But it’s not realistic to expect that one redevelopment, no matter the size in one part of the city can materially impact absolutely every corner of the city.”

The question now for the city council: does Port Covington’s promise make it worth its price. That debate begins Wednesday evening before the Council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee.