Baltimore Sun's 2017 Business and Civic Hall of Fame honoree: David Cordish
Jun 08, 2017 | 12:11 PM
Successful real estate developer found a calling in making money while honoring a civic responsibility to transform the cities in which he does business.
Hanging in the lobby of David Cordish's office is a framed ledger his grandfather used to record the monthly rent payments on the apartments he owned near what is now Mondawmin Mall. It's a reminder both of just how deep Mr. Cordish's family roots run in the real estate business and of just how far it has come under his leadership. Two generations ago, the Cordishes were renting apartments for as little as $25 a month in West Baltimore. Now they're developing a $2.2 billion hotel and entertainment complex in Spain. The business was on a solid foundation when Mr. Cordish took over, but it wouldn't have become the national and international development powerhouse it is without his spirit and tenacity.
After graduating from City College, Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland School of Law (how much more Baltimore does it get than that?), Mr. Cordish joined the family firm in the early 1960s and became chairman and CEO in 1968. At the time, the company was in the business of developing suburban strip shopping centers — easy work and lucrative, but, as he admits, if he hadn't done it, someone else would have.
The company's trajectory changed in the early 1980s. Fresh off a stint at the Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Carter and Reagan administrations, Mr. Cordish became involved in a series of complex urban redevelopment projects, initially in Charleston, S.C., Salt Lake City and Detroit, that would become models for the company's most celebrated work. The issues involved were vastly more complicated — existing, often deteriorated buildings; historical preservation; political sensitivities; and, usually, a legacy of failed projects on the same site. Turning those challenges into successes proved a lifelong passion.
"He's a competitive guy who likes to win, but he found decades ago a particular calling not just to make money but to couple that with civic responsibility to transform cities," says Jon Cordish, one of David's three sons who are now principals in the family firm. "He's built the business around things he's passionate about. It's not just about the financial return but about bringing transformation and being challenged."
Cordish projects have subsequently blossomed across the nation in cities including Houston, St. Louis, Kansas City, Louisville, Cleveland, Philadelphia — and Baltimore. One of the challenges that animate Mr. Cordish came in his home town when then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke approached him about redeveloping the Power Plant on Pratt Street. It had failed as an indoor amusement park in the 1980s and had sat fallow for more than a decade as other development plans fell through. Jay Brodie, the former head of the Baltimore Development Corp. who negotiated the redevelopment agreement, says Mr. Cordish brought great determination but also practicality to the project.
It didn't take tax increment financing, payments in lieu of taxes or any of the other tools the city has often used to spur development. The BDC built a new bridge to the pier where the plant is located, and Mr. Cordish did the rest. His big get was to convince Disney to open the nation's first ESPN Zone there. Barnes & Noble became an anchor tenant, and Mr. Cordish moved his own office there. The effect on Baltimore's redevelopment is hard to overstate, Mr. Brodie says.
"It helped move people east," Mr. Brodie says. "People didn't do that before," but they certainly did afterward as the city's waterfront renaissance blossomed into Harbor East in the years that followed. Power Plant Live, an even more complicated project, had a similar effect in moving people north from the water, he says.
The project for which Mr. Cordish is probably now best known locally, the Maryland Live casino, wasn't an obvious bet either. People initially mocked the idea of slots at Arundel Mills mall. The company had to fight through two referendums — one statewide vote on allowing slots and another hard-fought local vote on zoning — and Mr. Cordish tackled both with trademark zeal, personally going door-to-door to round up votes. He took a risk, and it paid off; Maryland Live quickly became one of the most successful casinos in the country.
"I think he's got three characteristics," says Jack Luetkemeyer, co-chairman of Continental Realty Corporation and a friend and tennis partner of Mr. Cordish for going on 60 years. "He's got brains. He's got energy, and he's got tenacity. A lot of guys have one of those, maybe two. He's got all three."
David Cordish is competitive, no question, says Mark K. Joseph, the founding chairman of the Shelter Group who is also a long-time friend and tennis partner of Mr. Cordish. But few see the dedication he has brought to his family over the years, and the spirit of mutual support he has fostered among those close to him. It's no coincidence that all three of his sons, despite taking different paths early in life, have returned to work alongside their father.
"If you're on his team, he will go to the ends of the earth to support you," Mr. Joseph says.
Born: Jan. 30, 1940, Baltimore
Education: Baltimore City College High School, 1956; B.A., the Johns Hopkins University, 1960; L.L.B., the University of Maryland School of Law, 1963; M.A., Johns Hopkins, 1965
Career: Chairman, the Cordish Cos., 1963-present; partner, Cordish & Cordish, 1963-present; director, U.S. Government Office of Urban Development Action Grants, 1979-1981.
Civic involvement: Member of the University of Maryland School of Law and University of Maryland Baltimore County boards of visitors; former chairman of the Baltimore City Housing Authority and Baltimore City Harbor Endowment Foundation; former commissioner, State of Maryland Economic Growth, Resource Protection and Planning Commission; former member Citizens Planning and Housing Association board.