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In Baltimore County, east side regains roar

For 30 years, they were Baltimore County's politically forgotten, the brunt of jokes and the place even residents called "Dumpdalk."

But when news leaked out that a Florida company planned to build a maximum-security federal prison on their doorstep, land that had been set aside for their much-awaited renaissance, the people of Turners Station and Dundalk rose up.

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They rallied, they organized, they enlisted the strong support of their government representatives. And yesterday, after defeating the prison proposal, they rejoiced at their rediscovered political strength.

"Hallelujah," said Muriel Gray, a Turners Station resident and activist. "We binded together and didn't linger once the news came about the prison proposal. People cared about their community.

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"Through this we are leaving a legacy for our young, who learned an important lesson in this successful fight."

Del. Joseph J. "Sonny" Minnick, chairman of the county's State House delegation and lifelong Dundalk resident, recalled yesterday the 1950s and 1960s when the area held plenty of clout, when east-side figures such as state Sens. Joseph Pine and Roy Staten ruled with iron fists and turkeys at Christmas, wielding great influence with their budget committees in Annapolis.

"We were powerful once on this waterfront," Minnick said. "But today, with this prison defeat, we're clearly speaking with one voice and, just as importantly, people with power are listening."

Many have memories of when the area's political presence dimmed. By the early 1970s, political and social fortunes started to decline along with the smokestack industries surrounding the county's history-rich waterfront.

It was an era, people remember, when the area got its nickname because of unwanted projects that no other county communities were threatened with: a landfill, dredging spoils at Hart-Miller Island, the Back River Water Treatment Plant.

"You just would not have seen this rather quick action by Maryland's senators years ago," said Thomas Toporovich, a lifelong Dundalk resident who served as secretary to the Baltimore County Council for 22 years.

Nearly three decades later, pockets of dilapidated rental housing and crime were critical problems and younger residents were bailing out for better jobs and newer, more stable communities. On top of all that, a redistricting plan by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening would have shattered Dundalk into four different zones.

Out of the growing problems came the east side's plan for an $800 million revitalization. From Dundalk through Essex and Middle River, new housing developments funded by private investment are sprouting, plans for a major waterfront destination are coming together and, some say, they have a new spring in their step.

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And nowhere on the east side can you see a rebirth of spirit more than in Turners Station, a historic black community that once housed the strong men of the Bethlehem Steel mills who raised strong families.

The victory for Turners Station and Dundalk takes people back to the good days.

"I haven't seen this kind of governmental response in my 27 years living in Turners," said Dunbar Brooks, a community leader. "We haven't said this yet, but we really appreciate what they have done. ... I appreciate what we have done as a united community."

Dr. Theodore Patterson, who grew up in Turners Station and is now a resident of Millers Island, said he can remember politicians who "showed up two months before the election in Turners, and we wouldn't see them again for four years."

"This prison issue is vitally important," Patterson said, "because it shows what happens when we are not two separate communities but a coalition of a larger force. Turners can see it is no longer isolated in spirit or geography."

In November, the U.S. Justice Department met in Washington with Baltimore County and Maryland state and federal officials to unveil a proposal by Correctional Services Corp. of Sarasota, Fla., to build a maximum-security prison that would hold 1,750 inmates.

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When news of the proposal hit the streets of Dundalk and Turners Station, residents got on their telephones and computers, organizing and forming strategies and informing their political leaders, from the Towson county seat to the U.S. Congress, that the prison idea was outrageous.

Quickly, Maryland's two U.S. senators told Attorney General John Ashcroft they were "adamantly opposed" to such a facility there, or anywhere else in the state. Legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate and House to block it. Meetings were held at the Fleming Community Center to map battle plans.

A few days before Christmas, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, County Executive James Smith Jr., and other officials met with residents in Turners Station for a rally.

Mikulski was passionate in her stand against the prison. The crowd loved seeing vintage Mikulski, defending their neighborhoods, much as she defended her beloved city neighborhoods against such intrusions as a highway and a prison ship.

On Monday, news came that the prison project was defeated.

Most agreed that Mikulski and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, receiving help from Ruppersberger - who gave direction and impetus to the east-side revitalization during his two terms as county executive - deserved most of the credit.

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"This prison could have killed an entire area," said Heather Moeder Molino, Ruppersberger's press aide. Ruppersberger was vacationing and could not be reached for comment.

"He knows from his eight years as county executive that Dundalk and Turners Station were areas long facing economic hardship," Molino said. "He wanted the revitalization of the east side to uplift, to empower the residents again, not drag them down even more."

When the prison idea was hatched, federal officials said they were also considering other proposals to build it on one of three sites in Prince George's County. Those plans still are active, a spokeswoman for Mikulski said yesterday.

In Turners Station, residents said the revitalization plans for their community helped kill any chance of a prison being built there.

"Years ago, we wouldn't have had the political impact to do this," said Courtney Speed, a Turners Station businesswoman and resident. "It is clear now that we are past that era."

To Theodore Venetoulis, who served as Baltimore County executive from 1974 to 1978, Dundalk's victory comes from perhaps the unlikely cocktail of Republican and Democratic politics, blended, not stirred.

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"This was one time to have powerful Democrats working for you in Washington and a Republican governor who has a connect to a Republican president. ... This was a good combination for the east side.

"It looks like the days of conducting business secretly, like they did with this prison proposal, won't get by the good folks of Dundalk and Turners Station," Venetoulis said. "It looks like the east side can flex their muscles once again."


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