HCFA's Politically Correct Location


By selecting a suburban rather than a city site for the Health Care Financing Administration's headquarters, the Bush administration seems to have based its decision on politics rather than any rational urban development policy. While the president labors in Congress to pass enterprise zone legislation to bring jobs to cities, his administration cavalierly ignored the opportunity to bring several thousand jobs to Baltimore. Instead of seeing this decision as a public action with important social consequences, the administration regarded it as merely a real estate transaction.

As she promised, Republican Rep. Helen D. Bentley pulled "every little string" to convince the federal government to keep HCFA in the county. As this is an election year, her raw exercise of political muscle is even more obvious. She effectively delivered the political spoils to the suburban voters that Republicans have single-mindedly targeted.

Most of the 2,800 HCFA employees live in the suburbs and exhibited an inordinate fear of relocating to the city. These workers will continue to work in a campus-like setting and continue to drive to work. But they also will have to contend with the worsening gridlock on the Beltway since the new site lacks the variety of mass transit options that came with the city site. The employees also won't have to deal with what detractors called the "crime problem" of the downtown site, just north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The reality that 45,000 people regularly come to the ballpark at night is ample demonstration that crime at this location is more an imagined than a real threat.

Baltimore loses from this decision. Having HCFA headquarters occupy this prime location would have fit neatly into the city's quest to be a life sciences center. Now the city must move aggressively to promote development on this site by others who possess the vision federal officials lacked.

The biggest loser is the metropolitan region. The nasty parochialism of Mrs. Bentley and Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden ill-serves them and creates unnecessary divisions between the city and the surrounding suburbs. When the city offered a prime development site as part of its proposal, these two politicians complained of the "uneven playing field." Their shrill objections to the city's spirited competition were unseemly considering the number of companies that have been lured to the county from the city over the years.

Keeping HCFA in the county doesn't add much to regional development. A revived downtown Baltimore would yield far bigger benefits for the suburbs. When companies relocate from other parts of the country to this area, they come because they perceive Baltimore City as an attractive place. Once Baltimore loses its luster, the surrounding counties will suffer most.


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