Baltimore County officials, residents debate merits of Towson Row deal

For nearly three hours, members of the Baltimore County Council heard conflicting opinions Tuesday on whether to grant millions in financial aid to developers of the stalled Towson Row mixed-use development.

County residents from Lansdowne to Fort Howard told council members they should not give developers $43 million in assistance, saying such a deal favors business interests over citizens who want money spent on schools and roads.

Representatives of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and the Towson business community, meanwhile, said a tax incentive package would be a smart investment to get a transformative redevelopment project off the ground.

“I don’t enjoy being here today to ask for this,” said Brian Gibbons, chairman and CEO of Greenberg Gibbons, an Owings Mills-based firm co-developing the York Road project with Caves Valley Partners.

Gibbons ticked off several of his company’s projects — including Hunt Valley Towne Centre, Foundry Row in Owings Mills and Annapolis Towne Centre — and noted that none required financial help from the government.

But he said the 1.2-million-square-foot, mixed-use Towson Row project needs public investment to secure private investors.

Greenberg Gibbons announced in May it was partnering with Towson-based Caves Valley. Gibbons said his firm will have a 95 percent stake, with Caves Valley retaining five percent ownership.

The project will include a hotel, apartments, student housing, an office tower, a parking garage and retail shops. Whole Foods was previously announced as the anchor tenant, but Gibbons said Tuesday nothing is finalized.

The Kamenetz administration is proposing a $42.9 million package to jump-start Towson Row. Of that, $26.5 million is tied to two tax credits the developers are eligible for once the project is complete. Instead of taking the credits down the line and paying lower property taxes, the developer will pay the full amount of property taxes. The difference — $26.5 million — would be given to the developers up front, then would be balanced out by increased property tax payments over the next 10 to 12 years, county officials said.

The rest of the upfront money, $16.4 million, is a grant tied to the hotel tax. Once it’s open, the Towson Row hotel is projected to generate $16.4 million in hotel taxes over 20 years, according to the county.

Towson resident Mark Lee said it seems the county has come up with “magic money” for favored developers. Heather Patti of White Marsh questioned using taxpayer dollars to help development.

“There are other developers that could bail out Caves Valley,” she said.

Some raised concerns the deal is being rushed through the council during the holidays. A final vote is scheduled for Dec. 18.

“You need to table this rush-rush $42 million potential giveaway,” Towson resident Mary Ellen Pease said.

Several people held up signs with the words “developer welfare” — inside a circle with a line striking across.

But Tim Bojanowski, president of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, said Towson Row represents the “greatest opportunity in generations” to create jobs in downtown Towson. He said financial help is warranted because Towson hasn’t overcome hurdles to make its downtown a vibrant destination.

“We are still in an uphill battle,” he said.

Economist Anirban Basu of Sage Policy Group said Baltimore County needs to consider helping developers if it wants to attract jobs. Basu, who was paid $9,600 by the county to conduct an analysis of the Towson Row project, said other counties are providing similar incentive packages. He said the amount of taxpayer money for Towson Row is relatively small.

Two council members expressed support for the assistance package. Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, said he trusted analysis from county administrative officer Fred Homan that the deal is a good investment. Homan said the money for the agreement would be included in future budgets and would come from a combination of tax revenue and county surplus.

“If he says it’s a good deal, it’s good enough for me,” Jones said.

Council Chairman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, said the deal represents “a pretty good trade-off” to move Towson Row forward.

pwood@baltsun.com

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