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Hale reflects on the changing face of Canton, and his own footprints

Ed Hale sits on a ledge in Canton Waterfront Park, which is the site of the first lot he purchased in the city 39 years ago.
Ed Hale sits on a ledge in Canton Waterfront Park, which is the site of the first lot he purchased in the city 39 years ago. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Ed Hale remembers a vision he had of Baltimore's harbor.

It was 1966. He was a 19-year-old ironworker assigned to the project rebuilding the Port Administration's Piers 4 and 5 in Locust Point. He recalls standing on its roof — praying he wouldn't fall — and looking northwest, toward the place we know today at the Inner Harbor.

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"It was an inspiration," he said. "The best views are the ones on the outside looking into the city."

This week, Hale — the Baltimore developer, former CEO of First Mariner Bancorp and owner of the Baltimore Blast indoor soccer team — discussed in detail the harbor odyssey he's traveled in 50 years. After his days as an ironworker, he served in the Air Force as a medic and then worked for a Baltimore tractor-trailer rental owner, Tony Tranchitella.

The pair did well financially. The Highlandtown-born Hale received an education in how to conduct a business, and went on found his own trucking firm, Port East Transfer.

Hale also recalls the day he saw a for-sale sign along the Boston Street waterfront, near today's Du Burns Arena. This day in the 1970s was the start of his property acquisitions, which eventually resulted in his owning or having options on 90 industrial acres in Canton.

Perhaps best known for the 330-foot tower he built at Canton Crossing, now home to CareFirst, Hale also at one time owned the land for the neighboring Boston Street shopping center, the Merritt Athletic Club and the Dockside restaurant.

The industrial harbor of the 1970s had streets with the surface of a washboard, embedded with railroad tracks. Busy diesel engines towed strings of freight cars along the water's edge. Hale saw opportunity in these railroads — and in the city's faltering industrial economy.

The merger that had begotten the ill-fated Penn Central Railroad left it in bankruptcy, with its trustees needing to liquidate assets. Low on that list of possessions was a strip of land, about 5 acres on Boston Street, where the rail operation had a pier and loaded and unloaded freight cars it moved across the harbor on barges.

Ed Hale paid $170,000 for those 5 acres, all of it waterfront property. He planned to clean up the discarded ash and junk, and appeared before the city's Planning Commission to gain approval for his truck terminal. His request sailed through — despite protests from neighborhood residents — and he now owned a long, sweeping chunk of unredeemed Canton waterfront.

A few days later, a call came from Mayor William Donald Schaefer's office. Schaefer wanted Hale's land for something other than a big-rig terminal. He wanted it for today's Canton Waterfront Park and the Korean Veterans Memorial. Schaefer often called it his Gold Coast.

Hale was summoned to City Hall, and remembers Schaefer sitting in a splendid office. "He called me 'sonny' and 'boy.' It was like something out of 'The Mikado.'"

Hale agreed to sell the land to the city, and some months later accepted an appraisal price for the Boston Street property — for which he had paid $170,000 at the Penn Central trustees' fire sale.

"I walked out of City Hall with a check for $2,000,069. That was the day I became Ed Hale," he said.

He bought the Champion Brick Factory in Rosedale and repurposed it for the truck terminal — but he didn't leave Canton. He continued buying beat-down industrial property, such as the old Esso tank farm and refinery.

"That was a spaghetti of underground pipes," he said. "Wherever there was property coming on the market, I bought it."

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This week, Hale drove me to the old American Smelting and Refining plant on Baylis Street, the last piece of property he owns in Canton. He's planning to sell it to a developer for apartments but seems satisfied with the mark he and others have made on this part of town.

"Never, ever would I have believed that would happen," he said, surveying a reborn landscape we know as today's Canton.

Of course, Hale also went on to acquire truck terminals in other cities. But he said he always made sure they had good views — just in case someone might want to build an apartment complex.

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