Tradepoint Atlantic, the developer that is bringing economic life back to Sparrows Point in eastern Baltimore County, plans to ask the county this year for help to pay infrastructure costs at the site. When that happens, the county will be balancing Tradepoint’s promise of thousands of jobs with a tightening budget and expected opposition from those who might see it as corporate welfare.
At Tradepoint, sites are being cleared and roads are being paved. Buildings are going up. Amazon’s distribution center opens later this year, Under Armour’s this spring. There’s talk of assembling offshore wind turbines there.
Officials predict 10,000 jobs at Tradepoint in the coming years. But there is a problem. The infrastructure at Sparrows Point, which dates back decades to when it was home to Bethlehem Steel, needs a massive upgrade, including new roads and water and sewer systems.
An economic study done for Tradepoint puts the infrastructure price tag around $200 million. Tradepoint Senior Vice President Aaron Tomarchio said they want a private-public partnership with the county to hammer out how to pay for that.
“We might not be able to grow anymore if we don’t have the right infrastructure in place,” Tomarchio said. “So, the time for that conversation is now.”
Late last year, the County Council approved a resolution that could allow Tradepoint to get tax-increment financing, also called a TIF, from the county.
Economist Anirban Basu’s company conducted the previously mentioned economic study for Tradepoint. Basu is the host of WYPR’s “Morning Economic Report.” Basu said a TIF is not a tax break. Under this scenario, the increased taxes Tradepoint Atlantic would pay as the property develops would not go into the county’s general fund, but instead would pay off the bonds used up front to help finance infrastructure.
“The infrastructure that’s being put in place should align neatly with the increase in the value of the property,” Basu said. “And so, the incremental increases in tax revenue generated should neatly finance the infrastructure.”
Basu said not rebuilding the infrastructure might keep businesses from locating there, which would mean future jobs and tax money lost. Basu added that governments historically have played a role in providing public infrastructure.
On the other hand, if the taxes generated by Tradepoint don’t go into the county’s general fund, then they won’t be used for things such as schools, parks and roads. Democratic Councilman Tom Quirk lately has been sounding an alarm; he believes the county is spending beyond its means. Quirk said he’s undecided about a Tradepoint TIF.
“If the details aren’t structured the right way, it could be disastrous,” Quirk said. “If the details are structured the right way for the county taxpayer, it might prove to be beneficial.”
Quirk wants to ensure that Tradepoint jobs go to county residents, and that perhaps taxpayers share in profits if they are asked to invest in Tradepoint.
Republican Councilman Wade Kach was an outspoken critic of council’s decision in December to use tax money to bail out the stalled Towson Row development. He called that corporate welfare. Kach believes a TIF for Tradepoint would be the same, to a lesser degree.
“I think that it is not advisable for us to, in essence, forego our tax revenues in the future, Kach said.”
Both Kach and Quirk said they have seen no details of any possible public-private partnership with Tradepoint. A spokeswoman for County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said there is nothing to report at this time.
Tradepoint is in Republican Councilman Todd Crandell’s district. Crandell declined to comment on the possible TIF. The issue puts Crandell in a tight spot, between Tradepoint and its promise of thousands of jobs for his district, and conservative voters who are leery of public financing for private development.