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East Baltimore job is a balancing act

Last fall, Jack Shannon helped orchestrate a public event to mark the start of demolition for the East Baltimore redevelopment project centered on a biotech park - a milestone in the effort to transform one of the city's most blighted areas.

This past spring, Shannon, head of the nonprofit overseeing the project, quietly agreed to halt the demolition on that first block because of community concerns about the hazards from lead dust.

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Shannon hopes to resume clearing the block by summer's end - in a way that allays residents' fears and in ample time for the first phase of development. "Even though it's not the schedule we envisioned, it's good faith," he said.

Shannon's actions in starting and stopping the demolition, and the manner in which they were taken, illustrate the fine line he has had to walk in his 13 months as president and CEO of East Baltimore Development Inc.

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He must make - and demonstrate - progress on a project expected to take up to 12 years and cost up to $800 million in public and private funds. But he also must be aware of the needs of the hundreds of people whose homes are slated to be acquired and torn down.

"It's always a balance between making sure we realize the goals of the project but at the same time making sure each person is receiving fair and equitable treatment," said Shannon.

Since taking charge of the huge renewal effort north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex, Shannon has expressed that and similar sentiments often enough that his words are frequently used by those who are asked to assess him and the job he has been doing.

"Quite often he says, 'You're only as good as the last family you've worked with,'" said Scot Spencer, manager of Baltimore relations for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a key private partner in the project.

Encompassing 80 acres marred by empty lots and vacant and dilapidated rowhouses, the project hopes to create hundreds of units of new and rehabilitated houses and to draw on Hopkins' research to attract biotech companies to new life sciences buildings, generating thousands of jobs.

Spencer says Shannon has made an "incredible amount of progress" and is a careful listener. "He's smart, but he's not arrogantly smart," Spencer said. "This [project] is a very tough dynamic. He is the person, for good or for bad, most clearly associated with what's happening."

"Jack is a savvy businessman, that's the way I have to look at it," said Lisa Williams, president of the Save Middle East Action Committee.

It was SMEAC, aided by Morgan State University's Institute for Urban Research, that raised objections to the continued demolitions. Williams stresses that her organization supports the biotech project but wants to make sure that those affected are treated fairly. "We may disagree from time to time. But at the end of the day, as [Shannon] always says, the community should benefit," she said.

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As intense as he is articulate, John T. "Jack" Shannon, 41, grew up as the oldest of four children of an accountant father and nurse mother in Camden, N.J., the state's poorest city, "in a rowhouse - just like here in East Baltimore."

While most of the kids on his block found blue-collar jobs, Shannon went to Philadelphia's La Salle University, where he was an honor student and managing editor of the weekly campus newspaper. He then earned a master's degree in public policy from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

After graduating from law school in 1989, he went to work for the nonprofit overseeing the redevelopment of Camden's waterfront. He served three years as an elected member of the Camden school board and was appointed the city's chief operating officer in 1994.

His city job lasted 97 days. Shannon quit, claiming "philosophical differences" with then-Mayor Arnold W. Webster, who later pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud.

"It was a tremendous disappointment," Shannon said of his abbreviated tenure. "I remember thinking I was going to make a difference in my hometown."

A brief stint at a private law firm was followed by 3 1/2 years working on business development for the city of Philadelphia. In 1996, the Philadelphia Business Journal listed Shannon as one of 40 influential executives younger than age 40, describing him as a "roll-up-the-shirt-sleeves, behind-the-scenes guy."

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Two years later, the University of Pennsylvania hired him for economic development at the West Philly school. "I didn't hire Jack for a specific job as much as for his intelligence and ability to get things done," said John Anderson Fry, Shannon's former boss at Penn and now the president of Franklin & Marshall College.

Among the projects he helped get done were the creation of a $120 million mixed-use development and the establishment of several food courts for erstwhile street vendors.

Charles Solomon, director of economic development for the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, remembers Shannon for such achievements as a near 40 percent minority contractor hiring rate as well as for his style.

"Jack was a very smooth person," said Solomon. "I don't want you to think he's smooth in a deceptive manner. He's smooth in the way he's able to deal with concerns."

Since being lured to East Baltimore Development for the $215,000-a-year job, Shannon - who lives in Guilford with his wife of 13 years, Denise, and the couple's 9-year-old daughter, Moira - has shown a similar mixture of accomplishments and aplomb.

Over the past year, East Baltimore Development opened a headquarters and community resource center in a renovated schoolhouse in the heart of the redevelopment area. It has taken the first steps in what will be a lengthy parade of acquisitions and relocations, assuming control of more than 100 properties and helping about a dozen families move. And last month, it narrowed to three the number of development groups vying to build the project's first phase.

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"Shannon's done a good job," said state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, an East Baltimore Democrat. "He's covering a lot of bases. He's keeping the project moving forward. It's a difficult job. You're working with major technology companies and you're dealing with a community that's been neglected and harbors resentment to institutions."

Joseph Haskins Jr., the nonprofit's board chairman, said: "To say we're pleased with Jack would be an understatement."

"Jack has given this project more than we expected in terms of his personal time and commitment," Haskins added. "I know he's dealt with issues regarding housing at 10 at night."

Besides "moving the project forward," Haskins credits Shannon with building a staff, which now numbers a dozen.

One hire that has raised some eyebrows is that of Arlene Conn, a close friend of city housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, as director of acquisition and relocation.

Shannon defends the selection, saying Conn has more than 20 years' experience in public housing development. "I would stand by the decision that has been made that she is eminently qualified," he said.

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He showed his capacity to be flexible in modifying a relocation policy for homeowners whose properties were being seized. Shannon hopes to find a way to address concerns over demolition and lead dust.

Raymond Winbush, director of Morgan's Institute of Urban Research, said he believes East Baltimore Development should have done more to ensure safety before tearing down houses. "I asked [Shannon] point blank during a meeting, 'Would you have your children there during a demolition?' He wouldn't answer," Winbush said.

Shannon responds that precautions were already being taken. But he said he is open to new ideas, such as removing lead-based pipes before demolition.

Williams, the Save Middle East Action Committee president, says one long-term concern is whether there will be enough affordable housing to accommodate displaced residents who want to remain in the area.

Shannon realizes that in the future, the public will need ever-more dramatic evidence that the ambitious project can achieve its lofty goals. "I am aware that until we have buildings and houses going up, there will be skepticism," he said.

For now, he looks back with satisfaction even as he looks ahead. "It's been a very good year," he said. "It's not by any means been an easy one. But it has been a progress-filled one."


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