Not bad, for a baker who got his start rolling dough in the basement of an East Baltimore rowhouse.

On a recent afternoon, John Paterakis Sr. stood on the roof of a nine-story office tower he's building near Fells Point and inspected the army of more than 1,000 construction workers building his Inner Harbor East, a small city of 12 buildings rising beside the water.The $500 million project promises to be the largest ever built by a private developer in the city, dwarfing Harborplace and the Gallery mall.

The bankroll of the "bread man" - whose family has written $100 million in checks to start work on the complex - is the main reason Baltimore is riding its most significant construction boom since the renaissance of the mid-1980s, city officials say.

It would be impossible for most people to miss Paterakis' 31-story Marriott Baltimore Waterfront hotel and nine-story F&G Insurance Co. offices that have been growing for the past year along Fleet Street, with the hotel scheduled to open Feb. 15 and the offices in November. But not everyone is aware that Paterakis has another nine-story office building under construction just east of the hotel, and six more buildings planned by 2004.

When completed, Inner Harbor East will feature the equivalent of 62 football fields of offices, hotels and retail space. Plans include 50 stores with chains such as Pottery Barn and The Gap; 10 restaurants; three hotels; 428 apartments in three buildings; an 18-screen movie theater; a Fresh Fields supermarket; a 200-boat marina; a public plaza facing the harbor; a landscaped waterfront promenade; 3,300 parking spaces in six buildings; and a 44-foot-tall bronze war memorial designed to look like a giant flame, according to Michael S. Beatty, vice president of development for the H&S Properties Development Corp.

Dreams and hard work

As cranes swung, saws screamed and workers slathered cement onto the fa├žade of one of the buildings, Paterakis watched through his tinted glasses while the clouds darkened and rain began to fall on his real estate empire.

"When I was young, I didn't dream about hotels and buildings. I didn't have any money. To be honest with you, I dreamed about broads," he said, laughing. "I dreamed about building the family bakery business. And to do that, we had to work very hard. And we had to take some risks."

An enthusiastic poker player, the 71-year-old has made risk-taking the central theme of his business life.

After his Greek immigrant father died of leukemia in 1952, Paterakis made speculative investments in high-speed bakery equipment to develop his family's H&S Bakery business from a three-employee shop, based in a rowhouse on Ashland Avenue, into an international baking empire. His bakeries earn $800 million a year and churn out the buns for every McDonald's hamburger in the East, the South, Ohio and Texas.

In this sense, Inner Harbor East might be called Bread City, because it is built on the wealth Paterakis accumulated pounding out 2.4 billion McDonald's buns a year.

Paterakis said he won McDonald's as a client using the same risk-taking style he has employed building the Marriott and the F&G Insurance offices.

In 1965, he invested $1.5 million building an automated, state-of-the-art roll-manufacturing plant on Moravia Road for McDonald's before McDonald's officials had ever heard of him. He decided to play the odds, having faith that McDonald's would use his plant because it would make better buns than the competition did.

Breaking with conventions

In a similar way, Paterakis broke with the conventions of the development industry by writing millions in personal checks to build the Marriott Baltimore Waterfront and the F&G Insurance building before he had financing or tenants for the buildings.

On May 10, more than a year after workers started building the hotel, Bank of America approved a $70 million loan for its construction.

M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said he has never seen a developer build without loans or tenants in his more than two decades coordinating projects in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

"If John Paterakis had not been writing personal checks to get construction started, we would still be sitting here without a hotel," said Brodie. "But he had both the personal fortune and the willingness to use that fortune in this way. I think it's a great vote of confidence in the future of the city."

Paterakis said he learned the necessity of taking risks by watching the deaths of almost all of the 46 small, independent bakeries that were flourishing in the city when he started in the business almost a half-century ago.