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Council committee approves aid for Harbor Point

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After hearing from scores of citizens opposed to the deal, a Baltimore City Council committee approved a plan Wednesday night to give millions in taxpayer assistance to the $1.8 billion Harbor Point development.

The 3-0 vote came over the objections of protesters who demonstrated outside City Hall. A disgusted Councilman Carl Stokes, the committee chairman who has fought the subsidies, left the room as the vote was being called.

Councilmen Warren Branch, William H. Cole IV and Edward Reisinger voted in favor of the plan. Councilman Bill Henry abstained. Supporters — led by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — have said the Harbor Point project will be an enormous plus for the city's economy and create thousands of jobs.

"Obviously there was a lot of emotion expressed at the meeting. Hopefully we'll go forward ... and we can start talking about jobs and the opportunity the city deserves," said Brenda McKenzie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp.

Wednesday night's vote came after hours of testimony during which developer Michael S. Beatty heard his plans for the 27-acre waterfront site — which will be home to energy giant Exelon's new regional headquarters — criticized as fueling a divide between rich and poor. Local ministers brought the crowd to cheers by alleging that the $107 million in city financing would harm schoolchildren by holding down tax revenue. A leading business group encouraged the council to approve a much smaller deal.

Beatty promised to give $3 million to fund low-income housing in Baltimore.

"Being a developer is hard these days," Beatty told the City Council's taxation committee. He said pledging money for low-income housing was the "right thing" to do, but did not offer details nor say how much of it might be built at Harbor Point. He predicted the project would break ground in the fall.

"We need to grow Baltimore," Beatty said. "If it were that easy, people would be building buildings all over the place."

The legislation for $107 million in tax increment financing bonds, which will pay for infrastructure, parks and other improvements at the site, is expected to go to the full council Monday. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young has pledged that the measure will win council approval.

Reisinger criticized the way Stokes left the meeting when he felt the votes weren't going his way.

"It was very unprofessional and irresponsible," said Reisinger, who called for a vote on the plan after hours of debate. "We have a process. Whether we agree or disagree, he should have stayed and followed through."

But Stokes said in an email after the meeting that he left because Young had "high jacked" the committee.

"Money and corruption trumps taxpayers and neighborhoods," Stokes said. "This project is politically greased and what is just for city taxpayers and downtown property owners be damned."

Stokes opened the hearing by alleging that outside forces were pressuring the committee to rush the project through, saying its members have been "pushed, cajoled, and brow-beated" to vote in favor of the bonds.

He then cited a recent ruling by the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board that the city's Board of Finance violated transparency laws in approving the deal as reason to send the proposal back to the drawing board. The state ruled last month the city broke open meetings laws in response to complaints filed by The Baltimore Sun and TV station WBFF after a closed-door meeting in May.

Organizations testified on both sides of the issue.

The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development introduced amendments calling for the $59 million in park space to be cut in half. He asked the council to force the developer to give $3 million a year to the city's recreation and parks department and $1 million annually to city schools.

"The whole thing is a bad deal for Baltimore," Connors said. "It's a good deal for one developer and one part of Baltimore. It's a raw deal for Baltimore as a whole."

But supporters repeated a familiar refrain: The public subsidies are justified by the jobs the project is projected to create.

"This is about jobs," said Rod Easter, president of the Baltimore Building & Construction Trades. "Do we have another developer that, right now, is willing to put 7,000 construction jobs forward? This is not just a Harbor Point project. This is a Baltimore City project."

Darrell Doan, the BDC's managing director of real estate development, emphasized that the developer — and not the city — would be responsible for paying back the approximately $281 million in bonds and interest. He called the financing plan the "lowest risk" deal of its kind that exists.

The Greater Baltimore Committee, a leading business group, also issued a statement in favor of the project, but was critical of some aspects of the plan. The organization recommended the city approve only $34 million in bonds for the first phase of the project and consider the other parts at a later time.

Donald C. Fry, who heads the group, wrote in a letter that while Beatty's development team would legally be responsible for repaying the bonds, the city would have a "moral" obligation to pay investors should the project fail.

"The Executive Committee of the GBC is concerned that this ... could negatively impact the city's favorable bond rating," Fry wrote. "The entities that evaluate bond ratings are well aware of the legal, moral, and reputational risks imposed by the issuance of bonds and take all those factors into consideration in their analysis of city finances."

Under tax increment financing deals, the city issues bonds to pay for property acquisitions, infrastructure improvements and other project costs, then uses the increased tax revenue generated by the development to pay off the bonds.

Some at the meeting took issue with a consultant's projections showing that the development would deliver a 10.7 percent rate of return for investors and make a profit of about $125 million without the city financing. With public financing, the rate of return would grow to 14 percent, allowing for millions more in profit, according to a city consultant's projections.

"This is certainly a doable project without it," Stokes said of the financing.

Beatty remained calm through the hearing, which frequently grew heated. Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector criticized members of the public as a "peanut gallery" and was lectured by Stokes to be respectful.

Asked about her comments after, Spector quipped: "I like peanuts."

The Harbor Point development is the planned home of Exelon's new regional headquarters, a Morgan Stanley facility and other office buildings, residential towers, stores and a hotel.

The site is assessed at $10 million, but the Baltimore Development Corp. projects it would be valued at $1.8 billion for tax purposes when the developer completes it.

In addition to the tax increment financing, the development is benefiting from more than $100 million in tax breaks.

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