Last month, ProPublica revealed that Gov. Larry Hogan used a digital mapping error to obtain Opportunity Zone status in Port Covington, where Under Armour plans to build a new corporate campus.
President Donald Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 created Opportunity Zones to offer tax incentives for investments in “economically stressed” communities. Port Covington abuts an industrial area that qualifies. According to ProPublica, the mapping mistake created a 0.001-square mile overlap between that area and the Port Covington census tract. That skinny sliver was enough for Governor Hogan to designate the land on Under Armour’s side as an Opportunity Zone. He declined to designate three neighborhoods with higher poverty and majority-black populations that city leaders had recommended.
This Robin Hood-in-reverse story generated déjà vu for me.
In 2016, I reported on an application by Sagamore Development, a real estate group co-founded by Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, for a $535 million tax increment financing (TIF) package from Baltimore City to support development of a new headquarters, plus retail and apartments. Activists pointed out that Mr. Plank’s “city within a city” would create a new white neighborhood on a more than 90% white peninsula in a 63% black city. Hundreds flooded City Council hearings to demand a community benefits agreement, and Sagamore agreed to pour $100 million into city neighborhoods and lower rents for 20% of its apartments. But loopholes allow Sagamore to pay into a city inclusionary housing fund rather than build affordable units and to put 40% of any units it does build off-site. Another loophole allows Sagamore to build the off-site units in poor, segregated areas, avoiding the backlash that usually accompanies low-income housing in white suburbs. While $100 million is nothing to sneeze at, resentment still lingered over Sagamore’s pursuit of luxury apartments for, as they described it, “highly educated millennials and baby boom residents seeking a high quality live-work-play environment.”
For nearly a decade, I’ve reported on government policies that literally map Baltimore and Maryland in ways that distinguish between areas where opportunity is already abundant and areas where they wish to create desperately needed opportunity. I call them “the lines between us.” The line between Port Covington — part of a disproportionately white and wealthy Census tract — and the industrial area next door is one of those lines. Kevin Plank's team cynically used that dividing line for its own benefit, ignoring the mission of the Opportunity Zone program. The designation of Port Covington as an Opportunity Zone promises to further widen the gap between white Baltimore and black Baltimore.
White supremacy, as it is increasingly understood, includes business and policy decisions — intentionally or otherwise — that help people white people stay on top. (“Supra,” in Latin, means “above.”) The hard-won community benefits notwithstanding, Port Covington will further raise up rich white people, both economically through the tax incentive for Kevin Plank and physically in the planned apartments whose views will allow high-earning (and, likely, mostly white) people to observe sailboats on one side and a long-suffering city on the other.
Governor Hogan and Mr. Plank’s developers argue that massive investments in projects like Port Covington will help neighborhoods all across Baltimore. City leaders have been singing that neoliberal cant since the development of Harborplace. (A veritable chorus took up the tune when cities across America went prostrate wooing Amazon’s planned second headquarters.) Baltimore saw Mr. Plank’s true colors in 2016 when a Sagamore representative showed a packed City Council hearing a graph depicting Under Armour’s projected employee growth — quadrupling to 10,000 in just over two decades — and said, “It’s grow here, or grow somewhere else.”
Many in the audience that day held signs that read, “Who Benefits?” As it stands in Port Covington, this new Opportunity Zone will benefit the rich and the white.
Under Armour is trickling down on Baltimore and telling us it’s raining money. Will Kevin Plank turn down the tax break? Will Governor Hogan give that Opportunity Zone designation to a neighborhood that needs it? If he won’t, will the U.S. Treasury Department do it for him?
Or will a Baltimore billionaire keep playing “finders keepers” with neighborhoods desperately in need of investment?