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For Baltimore County during Kevin Kamenetz years, much change

In 1994, thousands still worked at Sparrows Point in Baltimore County, which shipped nearly 3 million tons of steel products that year, helping Bethlehem Steel post its first profit in years.

As city residents continued a decades-long flock to the suburbs, county schools bulged at their aging seams, and used trailers to capture the spillover. After the closure of Hutzler’s, Finkelstein’s and other homegrown stores, the county seat of Towson was trying to revitalize its downtown retail and nightlife offerings.

Also in 1994, voters elected a young Democrat named Kevin Kamenetz to the County Council, launching a 24-year career culminating in two terms as the county executive.

Those 24 years saw many changes for the sprawling county that encircles the city — some the result of larger demographic and social trends, but others propelled by the driven politician who died suddenly on Thursday of cardiac arrest.

His shocking death Thursday at age 60 foreshortened what he hoped would be a lengthier political career, and one that would take him beyond Baltimore County. Having served the maximum two terms as county executive, Kamenetz was a top contender in the upcoming Democratic primary to challenge Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in November.

The county that Kamenetz leaves behind is bigger and more diverse and urbanized than the one in which he first took office nearly a quarter-century ago. Its population grew by about 20 percent, and it went from 12 percent African-American to 29 percent.

That growth spurred a burst of school construction and renovation, as well as development projects that have transformed Towson — particularly downtown Towson — and also Owings Mills, White Marsh and other areas.

At the same time, the county saw one of its dominant employers — the Sparrows Point steel mill, which at its peak boasted a workforce of 30,000 — shutter in 2012. Today, in a development many credit Kamenetz for sparking, the idled industrial tract has found new life as Tradepoint Atlantic, which will soon house such 21st-century businesses as an Amazon distribution center and a hydroponic greenhouse.

“That was a huge coup,” said Donald F. Norris, a professor emeritus of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Norris considers the revival of Sparrows Point and the development of downtown Towson two of Kamenetz’s most important legacies, and adds a third: “Providing really good public services without raising taxes.”

Observers say that Kamenetz embraced the changes that were sweeping through the county, and sought to address them.

The county was 85 percent white at the time of the 1990 census, and its government reflected that. It wasn’t until 2002 that voters elected the first black council member.

Kamenetz said the makeup of county departments needed to better reflect the changing demographics, and worked to diversify its ranks. In 2013, the local NAACP branch gave him a community service award for adding minorities to top agency positions and the police and fire departments.

He “understood the benefits of diversity,” said Tony Fugett, president of the county branch of the NAACP.

Last year, 56 percent of a police recruit class were minorities or women. It was the sixth straight year in which recruit classes were composed of at least 40 percent minorities and almost 30 percent women, Kamenetz said at the time.

Kamenetz said in 2015 that much work remained to achieve his goal of a county workforce that mirrored the diversity of the population it served. Eight of the 33 highest ranking police were women or minorities, and 16 percent of the force was minorities, less than the 40 percent of the population as a whole.

Housing was also a battleground in the changing county. Many fought against a program in the 1990s to allow poor city residents to move to the county. The NAACP and other groups filed a federal housing complaint against the county in 2011 alleging discriminatory policies.

It was resolved in 2016 with an agreement signed by Kamenetz that calls for the county to spend millions of dollars to support the construction of affordable housing in neighborhoods lacking it.

“I think it was his leadership that brought the administration to the plate,” Fugett said. The settlement “may not be a popular decision,” Fugett said, but Kamenetz “always tried to do the right thing.”

Public schools were similarly straining under the weight of the county’s swift growth and changing racial and economic demographics.

When Kamenetz started his public life, county schools were largely white — just 28 percent of students were minorities — and few were poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized meals. Since then, the school population has grown more black and brown.

By the time Kamenetz took over as county executive in 2010, minorities made up 38 percent of the school population. The share has grown to 61 percent today. Now 47 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals. School leaders have had to quickly adjust to educate students who come from poorer homes and are more likely to be more recent immigrants who don’t speak English.

Kamenetz agreed to fund an expensive initiative to give a laptop to every public school student, a move that was aimed at leveling the playing field for students from different economic backgrounds. The program was most popular in areas of the county where parents were less likely to be able to afford a laptop for their child.

Kamenetz responded to an outcry by parents to upgrade aging and crowded schools. He pumped more than $1.3 billion into renovating old schools and building new ones over the course of a decade. By next year, only eight schools will lack central air conditioning, down from 90 in 2010. In the past five years, 16 new schools have been built, are under construction or are being designed.

Parent Yara Cheikh has long lobbied for better school facilities.

“Children across our county are in safer and modern classrooms because of his investment in their future,” she said. “I will be forever grateful for his vision.”

“I really think that is his legacy,” agreed parent Mike Ertel, of West Towson. His three kids once attended classes in trailers.

Ertel, an insurance broker and vice president of Towson Communities Alliance, an umbrella group of 30 neighborhood associations, said previous county executives devoted school construction funds to newer parts of the county at the expense of older ones. Kamenetz, he said, took into consideration where the greatest need was.

“I can’t remember any county executive that has done that much for the schools,” he said, “and spread it out throughout the county.”

Kamenetz was born in the county, but he embraced the county’s relationship with the city more than his predecessors, one of them said.

Ted Venetoulis, county executive from1974 to 1978, said Kamenetz felt a moral obligation to the city because “the county is blessed with a greater level of wealth than the city.”

After the Baltimore riots of 2015, Kamenetz recorded a video encouraging county residents to visit the city and support its restaurants and institutions. He waived the $257,000 reimbursement it cost to send county police officers and emergency responders to Baltimore during the unrest, saying that “a strong Baltimore City is key to regional strength and stability.”

“That was a clear indication of the dramatic change … in the understanding of the responsibilities the county had to the city,” Venetoulis said. “It was really kind of a culmination of the changing knowledge that the county must be supportive of its urban neighbors.”

Today, the county confronts many of the same challenges as the city that some of its residents have fled.

Violent crime, while still much lower than in the city, spiked last year. While tensions between police and the community are much lower than in the city, the county is not immune to the national trends of calls for more oversight and questions about use of force.

Kamenetz pushed, against the recommendations of a county work group, for police to use body cameras. He accelerated the program after the death of Korryn Gaines, the 23-year-old Randallstown woman killed by a county tactical officer in August 2016.

The county continues to grow — the school system has been adding 1,000 students a year in each of the last seven years.

Cranes appear to be a permanent part of the Towson skyline. It’s hard to keep straight the number of similarly named if entirely on-brand developments: Towson Row, Towson Square, Towson Circle (renamed Circle East), Towson Station, Towson Mews, Towson Green.

Republican County Councilman David Marks took office in 2010, the year Kamenetz was sworn in as county executive. Both wanted to jump-start efforts to revitalize downtown with new residential, commercial and entertainment construction.

“We did not always agree on tactics, but the results today are stunning,” Marks said. “All around downtown Towson, there’s just a renewed sense of development and revitalization. The county executive sets the tone — that’s his job. He clearly made it a priority and encouraged entrepreneurs to invest in downtown Towson.”

Some in the county criticized Kamenetz for what they considered an overly cozy relationship with developers, or for not seeking enough community input. Last year, the county executive pushed for a controversial $43 million assistance package for the developers of the stalled Towson Row project. Council Republicans opposed the deal.

Bryan Fischer, 36, who heads the Towson Communities Alliance, said he would have liked a less “scattershot” approach to downtown development. He said the projects do not “in the least” follow a “walkability” plan that was developed to make Towson more pedestrian-friendly.

Still, Fischer said, he believes Kamenetz negotiated in “good faith.”

“I think his heart was in the right place,” Fischer said. “And we share the goal of a thriving and prosperous Towson.”

Norris, of UMBC, said he’s seen similar tugs of war over development where he lives, in Columbia, which like Towson is building more of a downtown than suburbs previously were known for. He admires what Towson is doing, and what Kamenetz was able to accomplish there.

“It took a place that was not particularly attractive to a place that is bustling,” Norris said. “It helps the tax base, but it’s also a centerpiece for the county.”

Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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