James Run Corporate Campus

An aeriel view of a concept plan for James Run Corporate Campus, a planned mixed use development that is seeking tax increment financing from Harford County. (Courtesy of Cushman & Wakefield / October 8, 2012)

The Harford County Council narrowly approved tax-increment financing for the James Run Corporate Campus project at Route 543 and I-95, with those supporting it calling it an important opportunity for the county.

The legislation passed by a vote of 4 to 3, with council members Joe Woods, Jim McMahan and Chad Shrodes voting against it, questioning what they called the re-definition of "mixed-office" zoning and the possibility of unfair promotion of certain property owners.

Councilman Dick Slutzky, however, listed several large projects the county had previously pinned its economic hopes on that did not pan out, and he said it is important to move in a new direction.

He noted he and Councilman Dion Guthrie were the only ones serving on the council 16 years ago when the mixed-office designation was first discussed as .

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The county will issue up to $23 million in special obligation bonds, at a maximum interest rate of 9 percent annually, for the 111-acre site, which includes the former Bren Mar Park golf course, that would become a mixed-use office and retail development.

In a controversial move in July, project developers replaced a portion of the planned office space with lodging houses that will have almost 700 rooms and a clubhouse and other hotel-like amenities, essentially extended stay housing.

Guthrie said the project would have an economic impact of more than $90 million on the county, versus the $70,000 in taxes the site generates by just sitting there, as Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti had pointed out.

Slutzky said the county never envisioned the GATE project at Aberdeen Proving Ground or what the BRAC-related changes through the new Army agency that moved to Harford, C4ISR, have brought.

He said the county had higher hopes for the HEAT Center, which won't to be able to compete since Towson University is moving across from Harford Community College.

Meanwhile, the recently-built Merritt property in Aberdeen is "sitting empty next to Target," he said, noting the project was supposed to include more buildings but is languishing.

"There isn't a person in there," Slutzky added..

Council president Billy Boniface concurred.

"My nephew has worked on the project and he said nobody has come in to look at that building," Boniface said of the Aberdeen project. "That's why they packed up and moved out of there."

Slutzky explained it will be difficult to get any defense contractors to move into office space in Harford County because of requirements by the Department of Defense.

"They're not coming here because they don't know if there'll be a contract until the first of January," Slutzky said.

"We have the opportunity to do something else that is the economic engine of Harford County," he said. "We have an opportunity to employ Harford County citizens; we have an opportunity to bring in jobs."

Boniface said it is a creative opportunity to fund county infrastructure, since Harford should not be expecting money to come from the state.

"I don't see it as a risk, I see it as a sound investment," he said of the TIF.

Guthrie said the county has only done this once before but other Maryland jurisdictions grant TIFs all the time.

"I think the positive side of it certainly outweighs the negative tremendously," he said. "It's very common. It's a good way to finance new roads and new projects."