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Ben Jealous' campaign story about a company that decided against Maryland appears to be true

At virtually every campaign stop, Maryland’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Ben Jealous, tells a story about the one that got away.

The tale comes from the former NAACP president’s years as a venture capitalist, and it involves a Canadian businessman who was looking to open a manufacturing plant in the United States. According to Jealous, he was trying to sell the company owner on a location in Baltimore.

Jealous says the owner was intrigued by the idea of bringing his operation — and 300 jobs — to the city. But the deal fell apart because of Maryland’s soaring health care costs, he says. Of course, Jealous’ take is that Gov. Larry Hogan is to blame.

It is not unusual for politicians to embellish the facts to make a political point, but in this case Jealous is not telling a fish story. There is such a company, and its founder says Jealous’ story is true.

At the request of The Baltimore Sun, the Jealous campaign provided the name of Joey Hundert, CEO of Sustainitech in Edmonton, Alberta.

Hundert, 37, said his company makes indoor farms in refrigerated shipping containers that make it possible to grow fruits and vegetables in inhospitable climates such as those in northern Alberta or in urban settings. He said that in late 2016 and early 2017 he wanted to build a manufacturing facility in a place closer to major markets than northern Canada.

At the time, Jealous was a partner in Kapor Capital — a job he plans to leave Dec. 31. Hundert said he spoke with Jealous, whom he considers a friend, at a conference. He said Jealous invited him to Baltimore to show him a site that might be suitable for a factory. (Hundert doesn’t recall the name of the neighborhood, but Jealous says it was in South Baltimore.)

Hundert said the site had a lot going for it — competitive energy prices, access to the port of Baltimore, an available workforce for jobs that did not require a lot of specialized skills. He said the company began modeling the costs and benefits. And that’s where problems emerged.

“What stood out was the health care costs,” Hundert said. They were high, he said, compared with Canada, which has long had a single-payer health care system such as the one Jealous is advocating for Maryland.

Hundert said he called Jealous late at night and told him of his concerns about “scary” health care costs and asked whether they were expected to increase more.

“I said perhaps I could stomach it if I could plan,” Hundert said. But Jealous said costs were expected to go up again — as they eventually did in 2017.

“We backed away. I didn’t know how to model for it,” he said.

Hundert said Sustainitech decided to locate in Toronto.

Scott Sloofman, a Hogan campaign spokesman, said Jealous would be a “terrible advocate” for recruiting businesses to come to Maryland.

“Under Governor Hogan there are more new businesses opening in Maryland than ever before and more people working than ever before,” he said.

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