Winding through a set of sprawling cinderblock, cement and metal buildings in a golf cart, a pair of developers down from New Jersey for the day said they could see houses, shops and offices where World War II-era B-26 bombers were once made.
It was just what the public owners wanted to hear from the two dozen or so developers who turned out for the opening day of an auction for the property in Middle River. The space - about 2 million square feet - has been nothing more than a large government storage closet for decades.
Called "Middle River Station," the former aircraft factory of the Glenn L. Martin Co. will become one of the largest redevelopment blocks in eastern Baltimore County, a region that has seen hundreds of millions of dollars in investment in recent years. It is across Eastern Boulevard from the Martin State Airport, next to a MARC rail station, two blocks from the waterfront and near established communities and some new ones.
It has a lot going for it, according to the federal government that now owns the complex, its partners in local government who have strong opinions about what it should become, and the developers, architects and others who came to look. But until yesterday, no one had any idea who might seriously be interested in the property.
Bidding begins at $10 million, and the auction will continue online for what could be months.
"You need a lot of imagination," said Moishie M. Klein, general counsel for Somerset Development of Lakewood, N.J.
"And you need an understanding of market conditions," added Nicholas A. Graviano, also with Somerset.
Yesterday, they hadn't quite come up with a plan for the property, or even decided to bid on it, but said the redevelopment was the kind of thing the company does. It currently is overhauling another former aircraft plant in New Jersey into a public transit-oriented, mixed-use community.
Government officials have held open houses and offered private tours of the Middle River site for the past year and said they had gotten inquires from most major developers in the region. Representatives of firms from as far away as California and Hong Kong have visited.
Yesterday morning, a handful of developers had registered for the auction, but by the close of the workday, none had made an offer. That requires a $500,000 deposit.
The federal General Services Administration, which oversees about 8,900 public buildings across the country, decided to sell the underused Middle River complex for the money. The agency has removed about 90 other buildings from its list within the past five years, said David L. Winstead, public buildings service commissioner for the agency and a former Maryland transportation secretary.
"We've found the online auction generates the greatest amount of interest and the highest rate of return," he said.
The government has held several auctions so far, mostly on the West Coast. At a cost of at least $10 million, Middle River will be one of the biggest sales.
While federal officials plan to sell for the highest price - typically they want a 6 percent return on their assets - they did spend two years talking to state and county leaders and neighbors about what they want. Local officials say there are few limitations on what developers can build, although they envision a mix of uses including residential, commercial and maybe even some light manufacturing.
The state and county officials plan to offer tax and other incentives to developers with desirable plans.
There are some parameters: Much of the historic main building will have to be preserved. Officials from various local offices were on hand yesterday to answer questions about that, as well as environmental contamination and about a small number of government leases that remain in place for the next couple of years. The Defense Department will pay $3.50 a square foot to continue housing its brown boxes of supplies there.
In total, Middle River Station sits on 50 acres and contains indoor space that is about the size of 35 football fields.
Much of the complex of several buildings has cement columns throughout, although an assembly area on the upper level has 120,000 square feet of unobstructed space.
Some rooms have steel trusses and banks of windows to let in natural light, although many of them have been painted over.
Other rooms have exposed pipes and fluorescent light fixtures.
The U.S. government acquired the property in the late 1940s and the General Services Administration took over in 1964.
David S. Iannucci, county economic development director, said it would take years for any project there to be completed. It will become one of several in the area, including a new business park called Baltimore Crossroads @ 95, where 10,000 people are expected to work eventually.
About $800 million in houses, roads and parks have been developed in the past decade in eastern Baltimore County, Iannucci said, and more than 5,000 houses are under construction or proposed there now.
"We'll see what happens," he said.