As their bus rumbled through housing projects and dilapidated schools and toward Harbor East — one of the crown jewels of Baltimore's revitalized waterfront — Zion Baptist Church Pastor Marshall Prentice asked his parishioners how they felt after hearing about the millions of tax breaks given to developers there.
"I'm a teacher, and I'm really upset," said Linda Jones, 62, recalling the three-inch cockroaches that scurried through her school and the library that was shut down due to budget cuts.
Those on the bus were some of the hundreds taking part in a rally and tour sponsored by Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a coalition of church groups, that contrasted tax breaks granted for downtown development with the rest of the city's dilapidated schools and dwindling opportunities for youth.
BUILD has been calling on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to fund youth programs and say they intend to hold her to her promises. Sunday's event, however, was focused on developers — specifically John Paterakis, the baking magnate who in Harbor East receives more than $9 million dollars a year in tax breaks on four projects, they said.
"It's your turn, Mr. Paterakis, to step up," said the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, a co-chair of BUILD. "But for the business community stepping up and exercising their leadership and resources to raise up the whole city and not just one part, we will not support another tax subsidy."
With "Occupy" protests across the country seeking to call attention to wealth disparities, anger over how the city handles development has been bubbling up in recent weeks.
Protesters met last week with Baltimore Development Corporation President M. Jay Brodie, calling for increased transparency and criticizing incentives given to developers.
Then, on Thursday, the City Council's finance committee chairman threatened to impose a moratorium on tax breaks for developers until, among other things, City Hall funds more projects outside of downtown. That move came after a task force composed of some of the city's best-known business leaders reaffirmed the use of tax breaks for developers but called for the city to demand a greater return and expand the reach of the projects.
Development boosters argue that the projects have created jobs and would not be sustainable without subsidies and assistance. Such projects have drawn major employers to the city and helped with significant historic rehabilitation work.
BUILD leaders said they met with Paterakis last week, urging him to contribute some of the money his corporations receive through tax breaks and put it into a fund for school construction. They asked him specifically for $2 million, they said.
Organizers said that Paterakis said he would speak to Rawlings-Blake about funding recreation centers and also said he intended to bring together developers to talk about ways to help disadvantaged parts of the city. Paterakis could not be reached Sunday to corroborate that account.
BUILD claimed a partial victory in their lobbying of Rawlings-Blake, who has vowed to keep recreation centers open, but has not publicly restored the $370,000 to the Department of Recreation and Parks to make that happen.
Last week, she also proposed an increase on the city's recently imposed bottle tax that she said would generate $11 million annually and be directed entirely to school construction. Reports suggest the city needs $2.8 billion to fix its crumbling school infrastructure.
Asked to discuss BUILD's event, Rawlings-Blake's spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said in an e-mail: "We hope BUILD will stand behind the Mayor's plan to increase the city's capital contribution for school construction by 140 percent in order to improve the condition of our public schools."
At Harbor East, buses pulled into parking lots where Paterakis is seeking to build his next project, Harbor Pointe, using $155 million in tax increment financing, one of the city's most frequently used tax breaks for developers. Marching through the streets, past high-end restaurants and clothing shops, they chanted "Raise our city, raise our youth."
Organizers handed them monopoly money along the way, denoting how much each building receives in tax breaks. At the end of the tour, the protesters stuffed the bills into a Christmas stocking that they said would be delivered to Rawlings-Blake.
"To me, it's typical corporate America," 52-year-old April Jackson said. "When you see the covers come off and see how it goes down, it makes you downright angry."
Patrons at businesses stopped to watch the group as they walked through; one elderly couple joined in the chanting.
Foster Connors noted that unlike some city schools, Harbor East has "toilets that flush, heat that turns on when it's cold, and windows that open."
"We just want our schools to be rebuilt," said Pamela White, holding the hands of her two children Treyonna, 5, and Izaiah, 6.
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