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Port Covington plan looks great, but not a no-brainer

Too bad Donald J. Trump is running for president, and I could list about 100 reasons why. But here's a new one that just came to mind: The massive Port Covington project and the request by Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, its developer, that the city of Baltimore finance $535 million in roads and other infrastructure to make it happen.

I realize the city has some fine people looking at this eye-popping proposal for us. But, less than two months after Plank's Sagamore Development unveiled plans for Port Covington, the Baltimore Development Corporation unanimously recommended that the project move forward with the city's half-billion-plus backing.

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To which semi-jaded, or even mildly skeptical, Baltimoreans say: "Hold your yoga pants, is that the best deal we can get?"

All due respect to Plank, Baltimore's Bruce Wayne, but $535 million sounds steep, even for a $5.5 billion project by a visionary entrepreneur, committed corporate citizen and generally cool guy — and even with (Bernie Sanders supporters, please note) the city's part covered by new property tax revenue generated over time by the Port Covington project.

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Is anyone in City Hall capable of negotiating a better deal? Wouldn't Trump, self-proclaimed master of the art of the deal, be best suited for this task? If not Trump, could we have Gov. Larry Hogan, a real estate broker, take a look? Sometimes you just need a Republican, you know?

Following the BDC's recommendation, the proposal to have the city float $535 in bonds to pay for infrastructure goes to the Board of Finance and — watch out — the Baltimore City Council, a body that has proven to be a total pushover when it comes to big, private projects with public financing. We've had decades of waterfront redevelopment, with significant public subsidy, but many city neighborhoods have been left behind. That's the root of citizen skepticism.

So, we should get a real deal-maker in on this one. Is $535 million really necessary? How much debt must the city take on to transform Port Covington?

And, even before we get there, a basic question: Does the Port Covington project meet the "but for" standard always presented as the threshold for public involvement in a private development here? The mantra goes like this: "But for financial incentives from the city, this project won't happen."

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Reportedly, Plank invested something like $100 million of his personal fortune to acquire the huge expanse of waterfront property for a new Under Armour campus and, ultimately, some 15 million square feet of new construction over two decades. Is he going to walk away from Port Covington if the city doesn't float bonds to pay for roads, sewers, utilities, bike and pedestrian paths?

Reflective of Plank's ambitions, Port Covington is moving fast. Until now, the city has had little involvement, and the proposal lands with a mayor on her way out of office and a municipal election approaching. There's already talk about the City Council voting on this deal before the end of the year.

So, before it does anything, we should get a civic-minded shark to take a look at this deal. City officials simply can't be objective about Port Covington; it's too big, too exciting, and it involves Plank, a guy politicians are reluctant to question or alienate. He's an entrepreneurial legend who has created a growing, international company with an exciting vibe; he wants to keep it headquartered in Baltimore and eventually grow the local Under Armour payroll to 10,000 quality jobs. He thinks he can develop 7,500 residential units, mostly rentals, at Port Covington, giving Baltimore a significant bump in population and, if not property tax revenue immediately, certainly other taxes generated by a well-educated workforce.

To his credit, Plank included elements that will make the project more appealing to the public — access to the waterfront, transit connections, parks, affordable housing and local hiring. He and Sagamore must have been listening during the debate over public financing for Harbor Point three years ago; those were just the sort of benefits skeptical taxpayers were looking for in that deal.

On paper, it's hard to see how this project could not succeed. Location has everything to do with it. If Port Covington goes according to plan, it will be a "city attached to a city," providing an urban-waterfront setting for people who might otherwise be reluctant to live in Baltimore, or any city, for that matter. I'm not saying that's a good thing. I'm saying it's a thing, a dynamic in the project's appeal.

Plank's Port Covington looks great, and coming within a year of the unrest that hit Baltimore, it certainly presents as a great gift to the city.

But nothing is a no-brainer. We need to know if that $535 million investment is the best deal for the city. We need an independent broker, someone willing to challenge Kevin Plank artfully, professionally and respectfully.

Which, come to think of it, means someone other than Donald J. Trump.

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