Under Armour founder Kevin Plank started discussing expansion plans for the Baltimore-based sport apparel company seven years ago.
With just over $600 million in revenue, Under Armour was looking for sites for a new corporate campus.
"The Under Armour campus should be an embodiment of the Under Armour brand," Plank said in April 2008.
Talk of the plan faded amid opposition to a proposed campus in West Covington where the Baltimore Development Corp. planned to take land by eminent domain. But it appears that Plank might never have let go of his vision for an Under Armour campus to rival Nike's in Oregon. Today he appears to be on the verge of assembling enough land throughout Port Covington to make it a reality for his now $3 billion-a-year company.
Plank's private development firm, Sagamore Development Co., has acquired more than 120 acres on the peninsula jutting into the Patapsco River south of Interstate 95 for more than $90 million, placing ownership in holding companies tied together by financing documents, common attorneys and managers.
The assemblage includes some of the same sites once targeted for eminent domain. But it stretches well beyond those boundaries, including the Wal-Mart and a closed Sam's Club, the former Baltimore Sun property where the newspaper's printing press still operates, now-crumbling piers on the peninsula's east side, and the Schuster Concrete facility. More deals may be in the works.
"It will be exciting to see what happens with it in the long term," said Marc Solomon, principal in Finmarc Management, which sold a roughly 59-acre collection of Port Covington properties, including the stores, last January for $35 million.
City officials said they haven't been approached about Plank's ideas for the South Baltimore peninsula, beyond smaller plans to retrofit the former Sam's Club with offices and a basketball court for Under Armour and possibly locate a whiskey distillery there — Plank has a pet project called Sagamore Spirit.
Others who have sold property to the firm or been approached to sell said they don't know what the ultimate vision is.
There has been no request for city support or involvement, said William H. Cole IV, the Baltimore Development Corp. president who previously represented the area as city councilman.
Sagamore Development and Under Armour did not respond to requests for comment and have not spoken publicly about the purchases.
The Port Covington parcels, targeted by the city for a business park since the late 1980s, were slated for high-density mixed uses in a 2007 Middle Branch master plan. Before the real estate crash, several former owners had spoken of plans for residences, offices and shopping.
Plank "has a lot of options. He could do density. He could expand Under Armour's campus that way," said City Councilman Ed Reisinger, who chairs the city's land use committee. "I have no idea, because he hasn't presented anything yet."
In 2008, outlines for a West Covington Under Armour campus included 1 million square feet, with three buildings of up to eight stories each, and athletic fields that could be built over five to 10 years. Reisinger said the firm also was interested in purchasing Swann Park at the time.
The land now controlled by Sagamore Development, named for the racehorse farm and training facility Plank owns in Baltimore County, is even larger and could accommodate more buildings and athletic complexes.
The Nike campus sprawls over 270 acres in Beaverton, Ore., with 8,500 employees spread out in more than 35 buildings. In addition to corporate functions such as marketing and finance, it's home to a sports research lab and numerous playing fields, courts and running trails. Reflecting "the company's focus on employee growth and balance of work and play," according to Nike's website, it also hosts child care centers, retail stores, cafeterias and restaurants, and even dry-cleaning services.
Marc Berson, chairman of New Jersey-based Fidelco Realty Group, said he had several conversations a few years ago with Plank's brother Scott Plank — at the time, the head of Under Armour's real estate division — about wanting to create something special for its workers.
"They want to build a 24/7 community for their employees. They want people to live around where they work. That's the way factories developed areas historically," said Berson, whose firm leases a building with offices and a cafeteria across the street from Tide Point to Under Armour. "I think it's different and yet in some ways, it's the same."
Under Armour purchased its 400,000-square-foot Tide Point complex for $60.5 million in 2011 and, a year later, won support for $35 million in city subsidies tied to improvements it makes in the area.
Berson said he expects Under Armour's growth will necessitate two sites, possibly with some kind of transportation or shuttle bus connecting the campuses.
Under Armour recently agreed to renew its lease on Fidelco's building, so Berson said he is not worried that the plans for the Sam's Club offices will lead Under Armour to vacate his property. If anything, he said, Under Armour may want to buy it eventually.
"For a business of this scale, the strategic issues are serious, and they're significant and they're not represented by a basketball court or one cafeteria," he said. "They're going to have more than one."
Scott Plank left the apparel company in 2012 to start the real estate firm War Horse LLC. He declined to comment on Sagamore's plans or any dealings in Port Covington, but said his firm's work is informed by his experience at Under Armour and guided by an interest in creating environments that are attractive to knowledge workers and bring people together.
War Horse is working with Sagamore Development on turning Recreation Pier in Fells Point into a 128-room hotel. Closer to Tide Point, War Horse also is involved in the development of a 10-story, 290-unit apartment complex on Fort Avenue and is preparing the former Egan Marine property at 1000 Key Highway East for commercial use, among other projects.
"All these things are about how do we make Baltimore a more livable city for that resident we're looking for, that knowledge worker who is a really really important person to have come to Baltimore," Scott Plank said.
So far Sagamore's property acquisitions in Port Covington have been conducted as privately as possible, with property owners approached through representatives, such as Chevy Chase developer Marc Weller.
The discretion has not stopped prices from rising. Tribune Media, former parent company to The Baltimore Sun, sold its roughly 60 acres to Sagamore last month for $46.5 million, more than $10 million more than Finmarc's similarly sized parcel went for early last year.
Leases for companies using existing buildings, including The Sun and Wal-Mart, remain in effect, according to sellers of several sites.
Weller did not return calls seeking comment, but the deal-making may not be over. Several large and small parcels remain in other hands throughout the peninsula.
Some of the owners of a strip of seven rowhomes on West McComas Street said they have been approached about selling their properties. Attorney Barry Glazer, who owns two of the homes and the Downtown Dog Resort near Swann Park, said he was contacted by Weller. Negotiations for Glazer's properties have since broken down, he said.
Russell Johnson, former president of Atlantic Forest Co., said Weller approached him about a year ago about selling the company's Dickman Street property. Johnson, who retains a majority interest in the property, declined to comment further on the discussions.
"I'm not sure what the grand plan is," he said of Plank's goals. "I'm sure there's something in the shadows working. I just don't know what it is."
Nick's Fish House is being readied for sale to a new LLC, also with ties to Kevin Plank through his private equity firm Sagamore Ventures LLC.
The Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation, which owns about 11 acres at 101 W. Cromwell St. that was to be turned into a park, recently finished its environmental cleanup of the property. A unit of the National Aquarium, the center is evaluating its options for the site, including possibly selling it, said spokeswoman Kate Rowe.
Meanwhile, an auction for nearby waterfront property in Westport is scheduled for next week. If Sagamore swoops in for that land, it would give Plank — and perhaps, by extension, Under Armour — control of much of the waterfront wrapping around the Patapsco River's Middle Branch south of I-95.
"I'd be surprised if they didn't try and buy Pat Turner's property in Westport," said Rusty Erdman, chair of the South Baltimore Business Alliance. "Mr. Plank certainly has the wherewithal, the resources, to do it."