Baltimore BioPark begins on west side

James L. Hughes, a University of Maryland, Baltimore, vice president, stands on the site of BioPark's first building in the 800 block of W. Baltimore St.
The groundbreaking today of the $300 million University of Maryland, Baltimore's BioPark represents more than just economic development to the Poppleton community west of Martin Luther King Boulevard, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said today.

"It's not just biotechnology, it's also symbolism," Ehrlich said. "To have a project cross Martin Luther King -- it was not just a road, but a line.

"Today, there was an official erasing of that line," the governor continued. "The University of Maryland is an integral part of West Baltimore's development.

"I've seen the gradual deterioration of West Baltimore over a number of years, and now I am in a position to see this community excited," Ehrlich said.

But Dr. David J. Ramsay, UMB's president, was more direct.

"When I first arrived here, it seemed to me that Martin Luther King symbolically separated the community of West Baltimore from the rest of the city," said Dr. Ramsay, who's headed the university since 1994. "There is development of the west side, but it stopped at Martin Luther King.

"What we wanted to do was to bridge Martin Luther King, and this project serves this purpose," he said.

And Clarence Brown, vice chairman of the Village Center of Poppleton community group, was even more blunt.

"It was like an invisible wall," Brown said of the boulevard. "But in reality, Martin Luther King is nothing but a street. There's no wall there -- and we proved that today."

Ehrlich, Ramsay and Brown were among a host of community leaders -- including Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, City Council President Sheila Dixon and U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings -- and local business leaders who attended the groundbreaking in a heated tent on a vacant lot in the 800 block of W. Baltimore St.

The atmosphere ranged from celebratory -- a Dixieland jazz band played beforehand and afterward -- to tent revival -- Cummings' talk of the groundbreaking as a "faith event" to spur community hope -- to pep rally -- as O'Malley urged the enthusiastic audience to "chant with me, 'Here we go, here we go, here we go,' " in recognition of the city's continued economic growth.

Today's groundbreaking was for the first building in the seven-facility research center -- a six-story building with 120,000 square feet of office and laboratory space that is to be completed by early next year.

The building is to be occupied by UMB, which will lease out some of its space to emerging biotechnology companies, as well as by the BioPark project's development team, headed by Townsend Capital LLC in Towson. Other primary development team members include Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. and Banks Contracting Co., a minority-owned firm.

About 300 people are expected to be employed in the building.

According to James L. Hughes, UMB's vice president for research and development, at least 14 tenants are interested in occupying the building. Two are in advanced negotiations -- a financial-services firm and a bioscience company, Hughes said. The third prospect is a New York-based bioscience firm that is considering the UMB BioPark among other sites.

In each case, Hughes declined to be more specific. "There's very strong interest in the building," he said.

Overall, the 800,000-square-foot UMB BioPark is to have two parking garages on two tracts totaling eight acres along the 800 and 900 blocks of W. Baltimore St., one of which the university would have to acquire, UMB officials said. On average, a new building would be completed every 18 months to 24 months, Hughes said.

The project is expected to eventually generate about $290 million in economic activity, $1.4 million in city tax revenue and 3,000 jobs, more than a third of which would be open to lower-skilled workers.

By contrast, the Poppleton community has a median household income of $25,384, according to most recent Census data.

UMB obtained 4.7 acres for the project from the city for $1, Hughes said. The university received $4 million from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development to help companies locate in the project, as well as $1 million from the Maryland Technology Development Corp. to help incubator technology firms, he added.

"This project will improve a once-blighted and dilapidated area," O'Malley said. "This project is not only an anchor for the west side, but it is also a generator. It is a generator for the city, and it will move us forward."

The mayor noted how the UMB BioPark is crucial to his "wishbone offense" of developing two major research parks that experts say are crucial to Baltimore becoming an international leader in the bioscience industry. The second project is the larger development planned near the Johns Hopkins medical complex in East Baltimore.

"The future of our city is in life-sciences and biotech," O'Malley said. "This project is what the west side is. This project is about what the west side is about to be."

Ehrlich noted earlier on how the BioPark represents a "world-class research center" and how the effort brought together state, city, educational, private and community resources. "This is a classic example of how a partnership can and should work," he said.

Ramsay, UMB's president, said the BioPark will not conflict with the efforts at Hopkins. He said the university hopes to build on the $324 million in grants received last year for biotechnology research.

Cummings added that the BioPark generates "hoping skills. When you have something like this, it brings a lot of hope to the community. A project like this brings jobs. People want to work. They just need a way to do it."

Brown, of the Poppleton community group, said UMB officials approached the organization in the mid-1990s after it developed a land-use plan for the area. "We really wanted to develop Baltimore Street as a research corridor. We were hoping [UMB] would come. Neighborhood people would be hired, and the BioPark will make this community better."

The organization is working with the Empower Baltimore Managment Corp. to develop training programs for local residents.

Lenny Clay, a Poppleton resident for nearly 50 years who was involved in the project from the beginning, saw the BioPark project from a different perspective.

"We had two investment companies in the community -- the University of Maryland and the drug dealers," said Clay, who owns Lenny's House of Natural Barber Shop at 1099 W. Fayette St. "We picked Maryland."