State forecasts economic benefit of Asian center


One week before Baltimore County officials are due to voice their opinions about the Worldbridge Centre, the state released yesterday a glowing report on the economic impact of the proposed $500 million Asian theme park and trade center.

Worldbridge, an educational, retail, business, convention and entertainment center, will generate more than $1.7 billion a year in economic "ripples" during normal operations and lead to the creation of 28,000 jobs statewide, according to the state Department of Economic and Employment Development's research office.

The project, planned for a 1,016-acre tract in Baltimore County's Middle River area, could produce $55 million in state taxes and $27 million in local taxes annually, according to DEED, which has strongly supported the project since it was proposed by New York businessman Dean L. Gitter almost three years ago.

The construction phase would generate another $15 million in state and local taxes and create more than 9,800 jobs, said DEED, which relied on the Worldbridge Corp.'s construction, operation and attendance data.

A member of the County Council said yesterday that the state had drawn up "a best-case scenario" and may have overstated the project's economic impact.

No further work can go on, and no more financing can be secured, Mr. Gitter said, until county officials approve a change in the zoning laws to allow a project of Worldbridge's scope.

Even if the zoning changes are allowed, the project must clear the extensive county review process, he said, during which residents will have the opportunity to speak out.

Councilman Vincent Gardina, who represents the 5th District, where the center would be located, said that he had planned to announce his opinion about the zoning change yesterday, but acceded to County Executive Roger B. Hayden's request to hold off for a week.

"I think it's an idealistic study," Mr. Gardina said of the DEED report. "It's a best-case scenario, and none of it can be completely documented. I think in reality you would have less of an economic impact than the study indicates."

Further, he said, the study does not consider the other effects the project could have on the county, such as environmental impact, the increased loads on schools, roads, fire and police resources, and the overall quality of life.

The state economic impact report, however, is likely to provide Mr. Gitter with more firepower to counter the objections some county residents have voiced about the project.

"We were amazed" at DEED's figures, Mr. Gitter said yesterday from New York. "We had no private means of verifying what their 'ripple effect' numbers and indices were" before the study was completed late last month.

In fact, Mr. Gitter's Worldbridge Corp. had estimated the project would generate $750 million in economic impact. But he said his company, unlike the state, had no way to predict how many jobs would be created in Maryland.

At recent Baltimore County Council meetings, area residents have expressed fears about what they believe will be a development nightmare in Middle River; a few even allowed traces of anti-Asian sentiment to cloud the meetings, observers said.

But some others are more even-handed. Milton Durham, president of the Wilson Point Civic Improvement Association, noted the fears about overcrowded roads and schools but allowed that "something's going to go in [to the site]. It's not going to stay as open, undeveloped land, which is what a lot of the people would like to see."

Mr. Durham said that his community group hasn't formed a "yea or nay opinion about the plan because we haven't been told enough about it to do so."

Mr. Gitter said he's come to believe that's a legitimate complaint. "We're trying to begin that dialogue now," he said, "and I acknowledge it is late in the day."

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