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As Port Covington debate heats up, influential Baltimore pastors take sides

When the Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr. describes the benefits of the proposed Port Covington development for Baltimore, he cites the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah: "Seek the peace and prosperity of the city," the prophet says, "because if it prospers, you too will prosper."

But Bishop Douglas I. Miles — who opposes Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank's request for $660 million in public financing for the $5.5 billion project in South Baltimore — thinks the Book of Nehemiah is more fitting. In that, the walls of Jerusalem have broken down, and the city is in distress.

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If Plank is going to get taxpayer-backed bonds, Miles argues, he ought to help the neighborhoods in Baltimore that are struggling.

"Our city uptown — the walls are broken down," Miles said. "Marauding gangs are in the street. Nothing that's been done downtown has benefited the broken walls uptown."

As the City Council considers authorizing a record tax increment financing deal for Plank's Sagamore Development firm, many of the city's most influential pastors are taking sides.

Hathaway has formed a coalition with several like-minded ministers who say they support the deal for Port Covington because it will create much-needed jobs. Miles, a leader with Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD, and other pastors are asking the City Council to vote against the deal unless Plank meets demands for better community benefits.

"We're not against development," Miles said. "We're against bad deals."

More than 500 people turned out Wednesday evening for a hearing on the proposal at City Hall. They formed a crowd that grew so large the hearing had to be moved to a larger room in the War Memorial building.

Lines stretched around the block to enter. When some couldn't enter, protesters chanted, "Let them in!"

City Councilman Carl Stokes, who chairs the economic development committee, which is considering the proposal, said he plans to schedule at least one — but possibly up to three — work sessions. The first is scheduled for next Wednesday. If the committee approves the deal, it will go to the full City Council.

"Almost everybody is in support of the development in some form or fashion," he said. "The issue is the subsidy. How much should it be? What should it pay for? What are the immediate benefits for the citizens of the city?

"We ought to spend weeks or months on this," Stokes said. "We should not do anything in just days."

Sagamore has proposed a waterfront development that would include a new headquarters for Under Armour, restaurants, shops, housing and a manufacturing plant, among other features. The company has asked the city to float $660 million in bonds to build infrastructure for the project. It would be the largest such deal in Baltimore's history. Taxes paid by the developer in the future would go toward repaying the bonds.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young back the development. But Stokes said the council should solicit an independent analysis of the deal.

Hathaway, the pastor of Union Baptist Church in Upton, said he's been working on development deals for decades and sees promise in Port Covington. He said past projects, such as the original State Center and Harbor Point, didn't include strong community benefits agreements — but this time is different.

The Port Covington developers struck a deal with six nearby community groups this month that participants say could bring an estimated $39 million into six South Baltimore neighborhoods over the next 30 years.

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The agreement would create a new entity composed of developers and community members from Brooklyn, Cherry Hill, Curtis Bay, Lakeland, Mount Winans and Westport. The group would decide how to spend the money.

"I thought that was just an amazing partnership between a large developer and community organizations in the city," Hathaway said.

Sagamore says the Port Covington project will create 26,500 permanent jobs and have $4.3 billion in annual economic impact once complete. In April, the developer agreed to provide more than $10 million over five years to fund programs in the city related to youth and education.

Hathaway is pleased, but he wants more. He has formed a coalition with several other prominent pastors who support the deal. They say they are working with Plank to make sure black-owned businesses benefit from the development.

The group includes the Rev. Alvin Gwynn Sr., president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, who calls the development "great" for Baltimore.

Plank is "putting a lot of time and money and effort into this project," Gwynn said. "It will bring a lot of work here in the city of Baltimore. When the project is finished, we want to see minorities benefit."

But Miles and fellow BUILD leaders the Rev. Glenna Huber and Pastor Calvin Keene say that if a developer wants a historic investment from the city, the deal must have historic levels of community benefits.

BUILD is demanding a public profit-sharing agreement between the developer and the city, a 51 percent local hiring guarantee for all jobs related to the deal and a commitment that the city by reimbursed any state school aid it loses because the project increases local wealth.

Baltimore schools are funded largely by the state under a formula that gives wealthier jurisdictions less money. The Port Covington project is likely to significantly increase the city's wealth, leading to a cut in state funding. But Baltimore wouldn't get the extra tax revenue the state would expect the city to spend on schools because that money would go toward paying off the $660 million in bonds.

BUILD leaders said they developed the demands after meeting with more than 5,000 residents.

With high crime and entrenched poverty in many Baltimore neighborhoods, Huber says, this is the opportunity to truly repair the communities.

"We are called to repair the breach, and we need to do a better job of repairing the breach, because there are people dying in the streets every day," Huber said.

BUILD released an analysis by consultants who questioned the optimistic projections of Port Covington's finances on which the city is relying.

Financial consultants TischlerBise, hired by BUILD, wrote that the developer's application for tax increment financing "lacks basic information," understates government operating costs for services and doesn't include necessary capital costs.

Carson Bise, the owner of TischlerBise Inc., argued that the deal should be renegotiated with luxury items like kayak landings eliminated.

Keene said BUILD's analysis shows the need for more study — and the council should not trust the current projections.

"We're asking them to vote no to the TIF until there can be an independent analysis and a community benefits agreement that benefits all of Baltimore," he said.

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The Port Covington project got a boost Wednesday when the pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee endorsed the deal.

"States and major cities across America salivate for visionary economic development projects like Port Covington to come their way," said Donald C. Fry, president of the GBC. "Baltimore City simply cannot afford to lose this development opportunity."

Hathaway said both sides have good intentions. He said Baltimore's pastors are called to speak out because they are working to build a better community.

"You have a biblical mandate to be involved in building the beloved community," Hathaway said. "The challenge is we don't all see the process of building the community the same. We're looking up at Mount Sinai from different sides of the mountain, but we're all moving in the same way.

"Some have to be agitational; some have to be negotiation. Whatever your strategy might be, we all have a vision of an improved city where everybody benefits."

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