City invites BRAC growth

The Baltimore Sun

Resurfacing key roads. Giving more money to a nonprofit that markets city housing. Creating a "BRAC Stat."

These are among the steps Baltimore officials say they are taking to ensure that the city captures its share of the growth expected to come to Maryland from the military base realignment and closure process, or BRAC.

"We will make sure we capitalize on the opportunity," said Andrew B. Frank, the city's deputy mayor for economic development, who is heading up a multiagency city effort on BRAC.

Aides say Mayor Sheila Dixon will highlight a key aspect of the effort during today's State of the City address: a decision to have Live Baltimore, the highly regarded group that promotes urban living, market the city to military and defense contract workers whose jobs are being moved from Northern Virginia and New Jersey to Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.

The nonprofit, which already receives about a fifth of its annual operating budget from the city, has presented an ambitious proposal that would cost $450,000 in the first year and would include hiring additional staff; hosting bus tours of the city, perhaps including overnight stays, for key managers; creating an enhanced Web site; and distributing thousands of promotional kits and CD-ROMs.

As of the end of last week, officials were looking to identify sources of funding and deciding how much of the proposal the city could afford to fund. But Frank said: "We are definitely going to do it."

A recent study by the Maryland Department of Planning projects that Baltimore will get about 2,500 households from BRAC relocations through 2015, or about 10 percent of the new households expected to arrive in central and northern Maryland.

Some Baltimore officials say the city would like to gain a greater share, and state planners acknowledge that its projections are not set in stone.

"Different things can happen in different areas of the state to make the numbers fluctuate," said Richard Eberhart Hall, the state's acting secretary of planning.

Unlike some of the counties, where there are fears that increased growth could exacerbate existing problems with congestion and sprawl, city planners say that Baltimore welcomes and is prepared to accommodate an influx of new residents.

They point out that the recently adopted city master plan calls for the number of households in Baltimore to increase by 10,000 within the next six years, a number that far exceeds the number of households expected to come to the city from BRAC.

And they add that Baltimore is geographically positioned to take advantage of growth at both Fort Meade and Aberdeen, which together are expected to account for the vast bulk of households stemming from the new BRAC jobs.

Within the next two weeks, Frank says, he plans to convene a regular meeting of city agencies and outside groups to monitor progress in what he calls "BRAC Stat," a takeoff of the CitiStat government performance monitoring system.

In some key areas, the city is a part of regional efforts. For example, the city is working largely through the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore to attract defense contractors and - through the Baltimore Metropolitan Council - to set priorities for major BRAC-related transportation projects.

On its own, the city is stepping up road improvements, like at the eastern end of Boston Street, and Broening and Pulaski highways, to help accommodate reverse commuters who will need access from the southeast to Interstate 95 and the Beltway.

Karen Sitnick, director of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development, says the city's policymaking Workforce Investment Board is going to discuss BRAC-related jobs and the city at its meeting next month.

Sitnick acknowledges that she does not know how many BRAC-related jobs will be available to city residents, particularly those who are unemployed or underemployed. But she says she feels there is some potential, particularly in "spinoff" service jobs throughout the region created by the influx of new residents.

"Baltimore City is not where most of the jobs are going to be," said Sitnick. "We have got to be prepared to take advantage of any possible opportunity. That is what we are going to do."

Officials say the greatest potential boost to the city will come from residents.

Some city advocates are vigilant in making sure the city is not left behind. At a hearing in Annapolis two weeks ago, Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, who represents Northeast Baltimore, questioned why the official Web site for Fort Meade included a link to several nearby counties, but not the city. The next day, the base added a link to the city, with a spokesman acknowledging McIntosh had a "good observation," saying the base would continue to add information.

Tracy Gosson, who put together Live Baltimore's BRAC proposal, said she was encouraged by a survey she took during a three-day fair for relocating at Fort Monmouth, N.J., in June.

"Seventy-five percent of the people had a positive perception or no perception of Baltimore City," said Gosson.

The New Jersey workers might be particularly receptive to a pitch for city living, both because of their proximity to Manhattan, which gives them an appreciation of urban living, and because the houses in Northeast - which are most convenient to the proving ground - are attractive and affordable, Gosson said.

Indeed, for all the talk of the highly paid, highly skilled workers who will be drawn by BRAC, state planners estimate that nearly half of the new households that are coming will have incomes of less than $75,000 a year - a level that makes the relative affordability of city housing particularly important.

In the south and southwest sections of Baltimore that is most convenient to Fort Meade, city planners note that there are already a number of new housing developments on tap, including Uplands, Poppleton, Wyndholme Village and Westport.

Frank said the city will expedite its review of a request by Westport developer Patrick Turner for a tax increment financing, or TIF, bond to help pay for site improvements for what Turner has described as an $800 million project with 2,000 units of new housing, as well as shops, offices and a hotel on abandoned industrial land along the middle branch of the Patapsco River.

"The Westport project becomes more important because of BRAC," said Frank, "and it will be treated as such."

Turner noted that his development is "central to Aberdeen and Fort Meade," and he said he hopes to have the first units available in 2009, the beginning of a seven-year period when state planners say demand for housing should be strongest.

Separately, city planners have begun planning for transit-oriented development around the West Baltimore MARC station on West Franklin Street and the area around the Middle Branch. They say the latter will provide a softer, greener complement to the Inner Harbor that will be attractive to new BRAC workers - and everyone else.

"There is a huge amount of community space there," said acting city Planning Director Douglas McCoach. "It is not just housing. It is livable communities."

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