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.
He met his wife, Nancy, in 1966 at a joint film seminar between Loyola and Towson's Notre Dame Preparatory School. He went on to the University of Notre Dame, married Nancy in 1971 and moved back to Catonsville in 1972. The couple had three children over the next decade: Kathleen, Tim and Tom.
Whalen worked for the banking markets division of the Federal Reserve, then analyzed private insurers and acquired properties for Fannie Mae. He briefly attended George Washington University Law School before transferring to the business school, where he graduated with a master's in business administration in 1974.
Whalen left Fannie Mae in 1977 to go into business with his father, and three years later helped turn the family dealership into Whalen Properties.
"I was a little nervous," said Nancy, who earned a master's degree in urban planning from Johns Hopkins University and works as a Whalen Properties vice president. "But you're young and you think, 'Oh, it'll work out.' "
She was right.
In the past three decades, Whalen Properties has developed 11 buildings it still owns and manages. It employs 12 people, including Whalen's son Tom and son-in-law Mark Fleschner. The firm currently is working on the Southwest Physicians Pavilion while pushing for progress on the Promenade.
Since 1991, the Whalens have lived in a two-story, almost 6,000-square-feet brick house, built in 1950 and assessed at almost $900,000, on 5 acres at the end of Foxhall Farm Road in Catonsville. They have a friendly dog and a feisty cat. A painted family portrait hangs on the wall. Grassy fields roll away from the home before meeting the deep woods of Patapsco Valley State Park.
In recent years, Whalen has become a grandfather, taken more vacations and handed off many daily operations to his son and others. But he remains "very caught up in his business" and still "lives and breathes" his work, his wife said.
"He doesn't sleep much," said Scott Barhight, Whalen's longtime land-use attorney at the Towson-based firm, Whiteford Taylor Preston. "He's one of those guys who works long into the night, and it's not unusual for me to get an email from him at 11 o'clock (at night) or 3 in the morning."
Whalen's friends cite his support for Frederick Road Fridays concerts, Catonsville Rails to Trails, the Lurman Woodland Theatre concert series and other nonprofits, and Whalen said he and his wife have "consistently made the decision to stay close to our knitting, close to home."
He said he targets properties in town he feels are "underzoned" and works to change their zoning to be more development friendly.
He knows his self-professed love for Catonsville doesn't ring true for everyone. "They say, 'All you're doing is crapping in your own backyard,' " Whalen said.
Michele Mazzocco, a leader of Catonsville Voices, which opposes the Promenade, said she faults Whalen for spinning facts and omitting details when discussing his projects in public.
"His information is, I suppose, appropriately one-sided for a developer whose mission it is to accomplish his business goals," she said.
Salvatore Anello, an attorney in Arbutus, said Whalen has built "first-class" developments, but also has smothered public dissent by filling politicians' coffers.
"You see things that don't make sense, and economically don't make sense, all going for the same person who is very politically active in terms of his contributions," Anello said. "The best interest of the community gets lost in favor of the well-heeled contributor."
Whalen said he creates a separate subsidiary through which he makes political contributions for each project, which he acknowledged is a legal way to contribute in higher amounts than are legal for an individual.
According to records, Whalen has contributed to Baltimore County Council members and candidates, local state delegates and senators, and county executives. He's also given to Gov. Martin O'Malley and President Barack Obama.
By far, his largest contributions in recent years have gone to Jim Smith and Kevin Kamenetz, Baltimore County's former and current executives, respectively. In 2009, Smith received at least $18,000 from Whalen or his subsidiaries. In 2010, Kamenetz received at least $16,000.
"Obviously you support those people whose philosophy you buy into and who conceptually are supportive of what you're doing," Whalen said.
Former County Council member Berchie Manley said she generally doesn't see eye-to-eye with Whalen on development issues, but appreciates his approach to business.
"Any time a business person is financially successful, you expect them to have more influence and certainly stature within the community," Manley said. "Steve didn't have to be generous to the community, but he has been very generous, and he's done quality work. It's just he and I don't agree on zoning."
Greg Morgan, a longtime Catonsville resident who opposed the Promenade while campaigning for a County Council seat in 2010, said he disagrees with Whalen's vision for Catonsville, but respects his honesty about it.
"I think Steve, as both a person and a businessman, is probably one of the most transparent people I've ever met," said Morgan, who also works in development. "He has opened himself to everybody that has an interest, whether opposing or supportive of a project he does."
For his part, Whalen lets the criticism roll off his back but acknowledged he sometimes gives it right back.
"Having done this now for 31 years, I've developed a thick skin," he said. "The challenge is not to develop a thick head."
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