City officials poured resources into their effort to lure Amazon's planned second headquarters to Baltimore. Mayor Catherine E. Pugh held a public ceremony to mark the sending of the city's pitch to the retailer.
You might think, then, that the proposal would be a public document. You'd be wrong, the city’s lawyers say.
The Baltimore Sun filed a request under the Public Information Act seeking a copy of the proposal, which could reveal details on how much taxpayer money and other benefits the city and state were prepared to offer the Seattle company.
This week a city lawyer wrote back saying officials couldn’t provide it because technically it had been been submitted by Sagamore Development, the company that controls Port Covington, the site the city is pitching to Amazon.
The Baltimore Development Corp. “is not the custodian of the record you are seeking,” wrote Hilary B. Ruley, a chief solicitor in the city’s law department.
“In fact, it was submitted and retained by the developer of Port Covington, the land being proposed as the location for Amazon in the City.”
Marc Weller, the president of Sagamore, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s development company, declined to provide the submission.
“As one of hundreds of cities currently vying for Amazon’s HQ2, we believe it is in the best interest of Baltimore City and its residents to keep our competitive proposal confidential at this time,” Weller said in a statement. “After months of work with key stakeholders throughout the Baltimore area, we recently submitted our bid with full and enthusiastic support from community and business leaders in and around the city. It was humbling to be a part of the best and brightest creative talent in the Baltimore area coming together to tell the City’s great story.”
After this story was initially published, David Rocah, an attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, said the civil liberties group also would seek a copy of the proposal.
“The City Solicitor expects us to believe that no one in city government has a copy of the proposal sent to Amazon?” he said. “That is so self-evidently absurd as to beggar belief.”
Amazon released a request for proposals from cities and other jurisdictions in September saying it was seeking a location for a new headquarters campus called HQ2. The online retail giant said the project would bring a $5 billion investment and about 50,000 workers.
The announcement set off a frenzy among economic development officials nationwide, all eager to lure the jobs and investment to their regions.
Amazon said it received 238 responses. In addition to Baltimore’s Port Covington bid, officials from Prince George’s and Howard counties also sent in proposals. Two other Maryland pitches didn’t have government backing: one by the Baltimore neighborhood of Old Goucher and another from the Howard Hughes Corp. effort proposing Columbia.
Critics of Amazon’s approach said it would set off a race to the bottom, with cities and states trying to offer the biggest subsidy packages they could muster. Sources familiar with the Baltimore submission have said it includes billions of dollars in public aid.
But an official with the Baltimore Development Corporation previously said that the city didn’t want to release its full submission, so that Amazon could consider it without outside chatter and commentary.
Other jurisdictions have been more forthcoming. Officials in New Jersey detailed a $7 billion tax incentive package for the company. Boston created an entire website for its proposal.
Maryland’s public information law does include a provision allowing officials to withhold proprietary information that businesses submit to them.
Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, the executive director of watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said the city’s position “raises significant red flags.”
"This was clearly billed as a public driven initiative,” she said. “Just stamping Sagamore on it doesn’t mean it’s no longer in the public domain.”
Port Covington also includes the site of The Baltimore Sun's printing plant, for which the newspaper has a long-term lease.
The headline on this story was updated after it was published because Sagamore Development said it provided most of the funding for the bid. Information about the relative financial contributions of the company and public agencies had not been released previously .