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Tech firm opposes chain


In an unexpected move, a booming high-tech company based outside Annapolis is flexing its muscle on development in the area by speaking out against a Wal-Mart store proposed for land across the street from its world headquarters.

USinternetworking Inc. spelled out its opposition to the sprawling Wal-Mart planned for Parole Plaza in a letter to County Executive Janet S. Owens -- more than a week after the County Council gave the project a green light by killing a bill that would have blocked the 135,000-square-foot store.

The letter said the company moved to Riva Road last year expecting the dilapidated plaza to be reborn as a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly environment where USi employees and other residents could stroll or dine out. And it implied the company may revisit its plan to create a college-style campus on its 13 acres if the megastore is built as planned.

"It appears now that our expectations will not be met," Executive Vice President Jeffery L. McKnight Sr. wrote Friday.

Asked if that could affect USi's long-range building plans, McKnight would not rule it out. "It's difficult to say now," he said, "but we certainly don't expect to change our plans to stay in Anne Arundel County and grow."

While odds might be slim the company would leave the Annapolis area, Owens is in an awkward spot. She supports New Jersey developer Carl Freedman's Wal-Mart proposal -- which still needs final county approval -- as a way to breathe life into the mostly vacant Parole Plaza.

But she also considers two-year-old USi a corporate darling with its 1,000 high-paying local jobs, deep community involvement and potential to attract other high-tech firms to Anne Arundel. The company offers business software over the Internet and is valued by Wall Street at $1.7 billion.

Owens is on vacation and has not seen McKnight's two-page letter, her spokesman said. But William A. Badger Jr., chief executive of the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp., acknowledged the administration's bind.

"That's why I'm emphasizing there is more conversation that needs to occur," he said. "We need to create a win-win scenario for USi and also redevelop a critical area of the town center here."

While Freedman and USi have discussed collaborating on the 30-acre site, possibly by building a 14-story tower for the company, the two sides have not spoken lately. Both said they would be willing to reopen channels. But Freedman has shown no sign of ending his plan to build the Wal-Mart, along with a supermarket and small shops.

Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis Democrat, said USi's concerns should be taken seriously. "I just hope this is a good wakeup call for everybody," she said.

"It's not too late to ensure that the plans are enforced," she added, referring to a 1994 Parole redevelopment plan adopted by the council that envisioned the kind of setting USi desires.

McKnight wrote his letter nine days after the County Council voted 4-2 to kill Samorajczyk's bill, which would have limited stores to 80,000 square feet per level in the core of Parole. McKnight said the company privately conveyed its feelings about the bill, but avoided a public fight.

The primary reason for writing the letter now, McKnight said, is to clarify that the company has no desire to be annexed by Annapolis, as was apparently rumored.

But much of the letter focuses on Parole Plaza's fate. McKnight wrote that USi wants a place "where our employees and local residents alike can not only shop, [but] take a relaxing walk through a park or eat at a fine restaurant."

He said in the interview that a two-story Wal-Mart might be acceptable if other town center elements were included. But Freedman and Wal-Mart have said that would not feasible.

USi and Freedman have worked closely at times in recent months. Their architects explored the possibility of erecting a 14-story building near West Street as well as possibly building across Riva Road from company land.

Freedman is adamant on one point: He will not sell any piece of the property to USi. "They keep bringing up the sale issue, and it's not on the table as far as we're concerned," he said.

USi is moving forward on an eight-story building on its 13-acre property. In all, McKnight said the company hopes to add five or six new buildings in future years. One reason is to consolidate its local workforce on one campus; another is to prepare for anticipated growth, including the addition of up to 600 new employees by year's end.

He said he hopes it's not too late to shape Parole Plaza according to the 1994 plan.

"That was one of the rationales for staying," he said. "We thought it would be the ideal neighbor to have, although we realized we had quite a ways to go to get there."

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