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The quintessential optimist

M.J. "Jay" Brodie became president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public economic development agency, in 1996.

Since the city native took over the agency, BDC has helped to retain or attract 35,296 jobs in 357 businesses -- resulting in an investment of $1.23 billion.

An architect by training, Brodie headed up major redevelopment agencies in Baltimore and Washington before joining BDC. He also was senior vice president of RTKL Associates Inc., a downtown architectural and engineering firm.

One of BDC's current major projects is securing a developer for a $250 million hotel downtown adjacent to the Baltimore Convention Center. The agency has worked with one firm -- RLJ Development LLC, the Bethesda-based company headed by Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television -- on a proposal for a 750-room Hilton hotel.

The unsolicited proposal was submitted with Quadrangle Development Corp.

Because the hotel would be built on city-owned land, additional requests for proposals must be sought. At least one other development team -- headed by Portman Holdings LP, a large convention hotel developer based in Atlanta -- has submitted a bid on the project.

The 60-day solicitation period set by city officials ends Jan. 27.

Last week, just two developers met privately with city officials to learn more about building a hotel near the Baltimore Convention Center. Does this show tepid interest in this project?

It’s totally unpredictable. Sometimes, no one shows up. Seriously. You don’t have to show up to put in a proposal, so one never knows.

Some people, psychologically, don’t want to show up at this conference because they think it’s revealing their hand somehow. It’s a curious world.

One can’t judge from who shows up at the conference -- and what they say, or don’t say -- that there’s going to be other proposals.

Since BDC has worked with RLJ Development on its proposal, might RLJ have an inside track ...?

There is no inside track.

Why might a competing developer think like that?

Because it’s human nature.

How should developers interested in the project proceed at this point, since the deadline is in two weeks?

We wouldn’t be going through all this if we thought there was an automatic winner. There’s been instances where we have advertised and have found a superior proposal to the original ones. RLJ also purchased one of the RFPs. It can modify its proposal. That’s the process.

Can the city pay for a convention center hotel?

The city is going to have to play a role, as has been done in other cities. The exact role could vary, depending on the proposal. There would be some public financial role -- yes -- to make it happen.

What about the state?

We don’t know that yet. We haven’t approached the state except in a theoretical sense. Past administrations have certainly been strong supporters of the Convention Center, and they understand that the success of the Convention Center turns, in part, on creating these hotel rooms.

We have had conversations with the state, but there’s no specifics on the table.

There's a sense in certain corners that this project, in particular, is going to determine whether it's business as usual in Baltimore -- regarding minority participation. Is that true?

That’s not a new subject at all for us at BDC. We’ve been pursuing and trying to nuture minority participation -- whether it’s at the top or in a joint venture.

At least half of the major deals we've done in the last couple of years have had, beyond the subcontractor and the architect, a major minority equity partner.

This is not a new day for BDC. It’s hopefully a continuation of what we think is an important part of economic development for the city. We preach it every day.

The two developers that have come forward so far on the Hilton project are from outside of Maryland. Does this signal new thinking in Baltimore?

There are people who’ve said to me five or six years ago that they didn’t want to look at Baltimore because it was a closed shop; if you’re not local, you’re not likely to get the job on a city project. That was an accurate statement about an old boy’s network in Baltimore for a long time.

I don’t see that as new in terms of last year or five years ago. If you look at Baltimore’s past, yes, it was a closed shop. The closed shop’s been open. The door’s open -- not just at BDC, but generally.

What other development needs to take place downtown?

It needs a Starbucks or two [chuckle].

You’re seeing downtown Baltimore reinventing itself. If we were sitting here talking about downtown housing five years ago, people might have been laughing at us, if they weren’t being too polite. People are living downtown, and that’s going to create a different audience for retailing in this city.

When the different parking garages open, you’re going to see prices go down, and the parking problem certainly will significantly be solved.

There are people working downtown in hotels, working in restaurants, working in office space who -- if public-private efforts were not focusing on downtown -- would be working in Hunt Valley or Timonium or Towson or Owings Mills or White Marsh.

How is the city stacking up against the suburbs?

Those are tough competitions for the city: The tax rate’s less, the parking is cheaper, or free, and there’s simply more space. Is the competition that the city has with the counties going to go away? I wish it would, but it won’t. That competition is going to be difficult, so we have to keep improving the city -- not just downtown, but in the neighborhoods.

What other efforts are going on around town?

There’s Upper Park Heights, whatever happens at Pimlico, with slots and the investment by Magna. We’re keeping track of that on behalf of the mayor. There will be some new opportunities.

We’re much more aggressive in some of the older retail sections of the city -- Belvedere Square, the Better Waverly Giant. We’re looking at the Old Town Mall to see what can be rescued or made new.

We’ll be looking at other places -- Cross Street Market in Federal Hill, Light Street and Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown -- wherever there’s an older commercial area.

Before, if there was a specific economic deal on the table, we would try to look at that. But now, we are looking at them in a more aggressive, structured manner.


You are seeing, bit by bit, more interest by certain retailers. First it was drugstores, now more grocery stores, in the city than five or six years ago. That's in part because they’ve saturated the suburbs. Our role is to help that trend.

Like the Better Waverly Giant?

Yes -- not without some neighborhood controversy over what’s an adequate site: Might there have to be some houses taken or people relocated? Sometimes, yes. The [Baltimore City] Council’s passed the appropriate ordinances for that.

Literally, the developer [Vanguard Equities of Bare Hills in Baltimore County] had assembled most of it, but he couldn’t build the Giant without assembling the rest, so we saw that as our role to step in.

Most people see the project as positive for the neighborhood; some are concerned that it won’t be, but we’re confident that it will be.

How do you sell the community on a development like that?

We’re used to community meetings [chuckle]. We’re used to folks having different opinions, and we try to develop a consensus and look for reasonable compromise -- and, usually, that works. It sometimes takes awhile.

Such as?

There's Whitman, Requardt and Associates in Fells Point. That took about two years, 20-some community meetings: Was it an appropriate location? Where’s the parking? What’s the design? Everything.

Eventually, enough people concluded that it was a good thing, and it’s built. They're happy and Whitman, Requardt is expanding -- most people in Fells Point are now delighted to have them. But were there initial opposition and initial concerns? Sure. Not unusual.

In part because of wanting to keep things the way they are?

Sometimes. Sometimes, concern over traffic. Concern over neighborhood-preservation issues. Is this going to be good or bad for the neighborhood?

This is not a city that has a lot of shy folks in it, so people come out to community meetings and strongly express what’s on their minds. Sometimes, they disagree with their neighbors; sometimes, they differ with the developer.

But, having been through the process many times, I have faith in the process. These are basically rational people. If you’re presenting a rational case, there’ll be a good result in the end.

And in the meantime, money's being held up?

Yes. Sure. There are developers who say: "Gee, we have to go and talk to all these community groups. We don’t have to do it somewhere else." But that is one of the city’s strengths: these neighborhoods, these community groups. It’s a process we just think is a part of our life in economic development.

Where is Baltimore headed?

Up. Better. More diverse in folks who are living here -- young and old. Racially. More doors of opportunity opening in the last decade. There's certainly a more diverse economy. The city’s been, publicly and privately, re-inventing its economic base. We can’t look back and say "bring back the steel mills" or "bring back the shipyards." It doesn’t work. It’s a different world.

Morgan Stanley probably would not have looked at this city five years ago. The crime rate scared the devil out of them. There wasn’t anything like a Bond Street Wharf in Fells Point.

That doesn’t mean that it’s easy. There’s both city and state incentives in getting Morgan Stanley here, but it’s workable. We’re competitive. We’re much more competitive now.

At the news conference announcing the RLJ proposal in November, your enthusiasm that day might have left one with the impression that you're "the quintessential cockeyed optimist ..."

[Laughs] ... Yes. Hopefully, not too cockeyed. Optimistic, yes ...

... How do you see yourself?

Not Pollyanna-ish. Pollyanna-ish would mean there are no problems, everything’s wonderful every day -- and we don’t have any competiton, and we just need to sit back and watch the buildings get built. I’m not that at all. I’m impatient, with myself and with other things.

I’d say I’m very results-oriented. There’s a piece of me that’s a planner, but I’m not satisfied with just BDC having wonderful plans if you’re not getting buildings built. You’re not seeing results if you’re not seeing jobs being added to the city. Then, we’re not successful in economic development.

So, I’m not optimistic in the "cockeyed" sense. I’m not that. Do I see the glass as more half full than half empty? I do.Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun