The state Board of Public Works approved Wednesday a controversial loan to the owners of the Greene Turtle franchise in Towson over the objections of Comptroller Peter Franchot.
Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp joined Gov. Martin O'Malley in voting in favor of the $240,000 loan after saying her concerns about the deal had been resolved. The issue was deferred at the board's meeting last month after Kopp raised questions about the loan.
Franchot restated his opposition, contending that Towson is not the type of blighted community that is intended to benefit from the Neighborhood Business Works program. In an earlier meeting he called the Greene Turtle a "sports bar in a college town" that should have been able to finance its expansion without a government loan.
However, Raymond A. Skinner, Maryland's secretary of housing and community development, said the Greene Turtle loan meets all of the criteria for eligibility under the program. He said that while other parts of Towson might be thriving, the 400 and 500 blocks of York Road, where the Greene Turtle is located, have many vacant storefronts and are in need of revitalization.
Skinner said the Greene Turtle deal was "no different from other loans approved over the years" under the program, which dates to 1995.
Franchot was not convinced, pointing to the example of successful Towson restaurants and asserting that the Baltimore County seat is not an "economically moribund community." He said the Greene Turtle loan is an example of "mission creep" in a program he generally supports.
"We're sending coals to Newcastle with these dollars," Franchot said.
Kopp, however, said she had visited Towson since the last meeting and believes the Greene Turtle meets the program's requirements.
"I now understand why your department proposed this loan," she told Skinner.
O'Malley, Kopp and Franchot, who make up the board, are Democrats.
The loan is intended to help finance the $893,000 expansion of the restaurant, a locally owned franchise of the popular Greene Turtle chain. The project also involves a loan from Baltimore County, as well as bank financing and an investment by the owners.
The housing department, backed by the administration of Democratic County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, contends that the loan will help revitalize downtown Towson while adding 26 jobs at the restaurant.
The owners of the Towson Greene Turtle franchise — Jeff Guidera and his sister Jill Packo — plan to build a second dining room on the rooftop of their building, adding 180 seats to the restaurant's current capacity of 120.
Packo said it was "quite a relief" to have the loan approved. She said construction had begun after the owners received preliminary approval of the loan and that they were "extremely shocked" when they learned it had been held up.
If the loan had been rejected by the board, the restaurant would have been in trouble, Packo said.
"We would have gone back to square one or possibly closed within the year," she said. "It could have been another empty storefront."
With the loan's approval, Packo said, she expects the project to be finished about November.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun