The planned move of the Department of Housing and Community Development to Prince George's County is as much about transit-oriented development and stimulating the economy as medical marijuana is about medicine.
DHCD Secretary Raymond Skinner can soliloquize about urbanites sipping lattes while riding bikes and communing with one another at film festivals near public transport, as he did in a recent commentary celebrating his department's planned move.
But it will still be about votes.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend lost in 2002 in no small part because Prince George's County voters decided to stay home, helping to hand the race to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. He was the first Republican to beat a Democrat for governor in almost four decades. When PG voters returned to the polls in larger numbers in 2006, Democrat Martin O'Malley won.
Sure, Mr. Skinner and Governor O'Malley have political cover in the form of a task force report, which recommends that a state agency move to Prince George's. But even it said state finances spoke against a move as Maryland recovers from the national recession. And agency employees don't want to leave their Crownsville office, protesting to union representatives about it. Geography explains their antipathy.
According to a DHCD map of where its nearly 400 employees live, 22 are in Prince George's County. The vast majority live in Anne Arundel County (146) — the home of their current office — Baltimore County (71), and Baltimore City (67). Those people will have no easy way to commute to the new site using public transportation without spending hours extra getting to and from their jobs — or moving.
Giving up driving would go against the culture of the agency anyway. It provides free parking for employees at its current location and 10 spaces at its small Division of Neighborhood Revitalization in Baltimore, home to 15 regular employees. If the agency can't even eliminate free parking at an urban center served by multiple public transportation options, why should state residents believe its hype about the stimulating effects of transit-oriented development?
And after Neighborhood Revitalization's move last year to 10 N. Calvert St. from the Mount Clare Junction shopping center in West Baltimore, why should taxpayers trust the agency believes its own mission? If there was ever a neighborhood in need of revitalization in the city, it is the Pigtown area near the shopping center.
Since DHCD moved out of Mount Clare Junction a year ago, the anchor tenant in the development, a Safeway, closed, leaving the neighborhood without a grocery store. Many residents do not have cars, so the loss means a corner market is the only place many people can conveniently shop. Vacant storefronts and "for lease" signs pepper the center. Wachovia, a couple of check-cashing stores and a laundromat are there, but during a recent visit it seemed like addicts at a drug rehabilitation clinic in the center were the main patrons.
Sebastian Sassi, a Pigtown community activist, said DHCD's move to a nicer neighborhood is understandable because Pigtown can be a rough place, "but the narrative in Annapolis is different from reality." He added that the move "doesn't reflect well on policy choices his [Gov. Martin O'Malley] administration has made."
And at $120,245.88 per year, the new space in downtown Baltimore in the heart of the business district costs 64 percent more than the previous lease in Mount Clare Junction.
That raises the question of how much the move and new space will cost state taxpayers at a time when the state faces $1.5 billion-plus deficits in coming years and can only balance the budget by underfunding the state pension system and shifting hundreds of millions of dollars from trust funds to the general fund and issuing new debt in its place. The state is waiting for proposals, so no price tag yet exists for the O'Malley administration's utopian vision.
With space constraints for DHCD employees not an issue, wouldn't it be prudent to shelve the agency's grand plans until capacity problems warranted a move? According to employees, their union representatives, Anne Arundel officials, the budget and geography, yes. But this move was never about anything except politics.
Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.