RASCOVAR: Backing of Towson Row funds likely to be a major issue for Baltimore County executive candidates

Greenberg Gibbons is at it again. After successfully converting the old Solo Cup factory into the busy Foundry Row commercial center on Reisterstown Road at Painters Mill Boulevard, the local developer has breathed new life into a struggling project in the county seat with a similar name, Towson Row.

It’s a massive $350 million project at a key intersection — York Road and Towsontown Boulevard. Components of the plan seek to meld town and gown.

Greenberg Gibbons is a late addition to the undertaking after Caves Valley Partners tried repeatedly to get the development started on its own.

This is the sort of project Towson needs — a heightened mixture of retail, residential, office space, a hotel and student housing.

Last month, the County Council narrowly approved $42 million in government financing for Towson Row. The development is controversial with a number of Towson-area residents and others who resent government support for a private-sector development.

Some call it “developer welfare.” Yet without an infusion of county dollars, this important project can’t move forward. No lender was willing to underwrite Towson Row without additional up-front money.

Given the importance of this development to Towson, reasonable council members supported the Kamenetz administration’s plan.

The county gains in two ways: It receives more property tax revenue from the developers as soon as Towson Row opens for business, and it will reap substantial taxes from the project’s hotel.

Meanwhile, the economic boost could be huge: a 905-bed student housing complex, 250 apartments, 140,000 square feet of office space, another 140,000 square feet of shops and a large garage.

Perhaps the best news for Towsonites is the anchor tenant: Whole Foods. Finally, a close-by major supermarket known for its organic and fresh produce.

Towson has struggled to become more than just the seat of county government. Nearly all its office buildings have high vacancy rates. Towson University remains a few blocks away geographically but miles away as far as local amenities. It’s a town in need of a boost.

That’s why Councilwoman Vicki Almond of Reisterstown, along with the other three Democrats on the council, approved the project despite loud opposition.

She did so knowing her vote would become an issue in the race for Baltimore County executive.

Almond has been a consistent backer of developer projects, some of them controversial.

She wavered initially on the Foundry Row project but eventually sided with Greenberg Gibbons. She’s been denounced for accepting developer money in her campaigns.

Yet, every council member does the same thing. That makes this an issue ripe for charges and countercharges in the campaign.

Both of Almond’s Democratic opponents for county executive have called her a captive of developer interests.

She didn’t help matters by holding a fundraiser at Foundry Row. She’s clearly hoping the popularity of the Wegmans there will overcome any perception of developer favoritism.

One of her foes, former state Del. John Olszewski Jr., used her support of Foundry Row to note that he would never favor “well-heeled special interests” over the wishes of the community.

Her other Democratic opponent, state Sen. Jim Brochin, is making Almond’s perceived closeness to developers a linchpin of his campaign, calling her “a candidate who does whatever developers want.”

Is this an issue that will resonate with voters in the months leading up to the June primary?

Or, are residents in the Owings Mills-Reisterstown-Glyndon area more likely to thank Almond for bringing a Wegmans into their community?

Either way, this will be a hot topic at candidate forums in the coming months.

Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.

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