xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement

The lobbyist for a Baltimore County project is the county executive’s father. A ‘clear line’ prevents conflict, they say.

Johnny Olszewski Jr., center, and his family, left to right, mother Sherry, father Johnny Olszewski Sr., his daughter Daria, 3, and wife Marisa celebrate his victory as Baltimore County Executive at his Election Night party at the Sheraton Baltimore North Hotel on Maryland General Election Day 2018.
Johnny Olszewski Jr., center, and his family, left to right, mother Sherry, father Johnny Olszewski Sr., his daughter Daria, 3, and wife Marisa celebrate his victory as Baltimore County Executive at his Election Night party at the Sheraton Baltimore North Hotel on Maryland General Election Day 2018.(Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

The owner of a historic industrial property in Middle River is getting help with his redevelopment efforts from a lobbyist who knows plenty about Baltimore County government: John Olszewski Sr., a former county councilman who is the father of County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.

Olszewski Sr. has been leading Blue Ocean Realty’s efforts to get the General Assembly to approve a tax break for the project, which would turn a vast warehouse where World War II bombers were built into a sports, entertainment and retail complex.

Advertisement

The elder Olszewski notes that his campaign for the project involves getting state officials to act, not the county. But as it happens, Baltimore County also supports the Middle River project. So Olszewski Sr. recently made his pitch to Baltimore County legislators in Annapolis sitting at the same table as one of his son’s top employees, county economic development director Will Anderson.

The arrangement doesn’t appear to violate any ethics laws or restrictions on lobbying, experts say, but it is unusual to have close relatives working as a lobbyist and a top politician.

Both father and son said they’re insulating themselves from each other’s work.

Olszewski Jr. said he’s been careful to separate himself from his father’s work as a lobbyist. Olszewski Sr. opened up his lobbying practice before Olszewski Jr. was elected county executive in 2018, and he’s currently registered to lobby state officials on behalf of Blue Ocean Realty and three other clients.

The father is not registered to lobby in Baltimore County.

“We have intentionally put a clear line where he does not lobby me, does not lobby anyone in my administration and I think we’ve been very intentional about how we approach the work,” Olszewski Jr. said.

He said he does not talk to his father “about any of his work.”

Olszewski Sr., meanwhile, said his work does not involve lobbying county agencies.

Advertisement

He said he asked for advice from county ethics officials about how to handle his work in light of his son’s position. He received written guidance last March.

The ethics opinion advised Olszewski Sr. that if he lobbied county officials, there could be an “appearance of impropriety” and county workers “might believe that their approval of the requests would create favor with the County Executive, or were being tacitly approved by the County Executive.” Likewise, if a county worker took an action against one of Olszewski Sr.'s clients, they might believe that could “result in disfavor by the County Executive.”

“What they said is I’m allowed to do federal, state and local matters, as long as it doesn’t include Baltimore County government,” he said. “So when I was hired on with Blue Ocean, I made it perfectly clear I can only handle state and federal issues.”

When Blue Ocean needs to talk to county officials, “they have other people who take care of that,” Olszewski Sr. said.

“I absolutely draw a line. I make it perfectly clear to anybody ... I cannot talk to anyone in the county or the county executive. I do no work in Baltimore County,” he said.

Joanne Antoine, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause Maryland, said although the two men appear to be taking the proper steps, there still could be a conflict of interest, or at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Advertisement

“It’s clear that the tax break bill is county business at this point, and while Olszewski Jr., Olszewski Sr. and the economic development director may not be in communication about the bill, based on the opinion of the Ethics Commission, Olszewski Sr. should recuse himself from this project,” Antoine said.

Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said it’s “a good thing” Olszewski Sr. has decided not to lobby his son’s employees. Clark said Olszewski Jr. should consider recusal from discussions about the development due to his father’s role, but she said recusal isn’t required.

Anderson, the county’s economic development director, said in a statement that he and his staff don’t work with Olszewski Sr. on the depot redevelopment. He said they speak with Blue Ocean Realty CEO Jonathan Ehrenfeld or the company’s attorney, Tim Kotroco. Kotroco previously was Olszewski Sr.'s attorney, but said they have no current business relationship.

Blue Ocean’s efforts are currently focused on lobbying state lawmakers to approve a tax break and to get state transportation officials to designate the project as a transit-oriented development. The county executive noted that Blue Ocean Realty isn’t seeking any legislation or actions from the county government. Eventually, however, the county would have to approve project plans to make sure they meet requirements, such as stormwater management or having enough parking.

Blue Ocean Realty, headquartered in Owings Mills, bought the Middle River Depot property at the corner of Eastern Boulevard and White Marsh Boulevard last spring.

The nearly 2-million-square-foot warehouse was used to build B-26 Marauder bombers for the Glenn L. Martin Company during World War II. At its peak during the war, Martin employed 53,000 workers in the area, including many who relocated to Middle River from the Midwest, according to the Maryland Historical Trust.

Middle River Depot, a former plant where WWII bombers were once built, is proposed to be redeveloped into a mixed-use project called "Aviation Station" by developer Blue Ocean Realty. John Olszewski Sr., the father of Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., is a lobbyist for the developer.
Middle River Depot, a former plant where WWII bombers were once built, is proposed to be redeveloped into a mixed-use project called "Aviation Station" by developer Blue Ocean Realty. John Olszewski Sr., the father of Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., is a lobbyist for the developer. (Kenneth K. Lam)

The depot building is noted for its efficient and utilitarian design by architect Albert Kahn, who used bridges as his inspiration for 300-foot trusses that support the structure.

But it’s sat vacant for years, as various redevelopment proposals have failed. A prior developer’s plans for a Walmart-anchored project there led to a nasty zoning and legal fight in 2012 and 2013.

Ehrenfeld, the developer, said he hopes to make Aviation Station “a work, live, play, mixed-use environment with destination retailers and entertainment uses for everyone."

Ehrenfeld said he’s “fortunate” to have Olszewski Sr. working on the project. “His only role on our team is to handle matters before the State of Maryland and the federal government,” Ehrenfeld wrote in an email. “He has no role with Baltimore County or any of its agencies. There are other members of our team that handle matters with Baltimore County.”

Baltimore County Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins said redeveloping the site has been challenging because the buildings are historical landmarks, meaning contractors can neither raze nor redesign the factory complex. She called Blue Ocean’s proposal “a huge game-changer” for Middle River.

Bevins, a Democrat whose district includes the depot, said Blue Ocean has met with her and Olszewski Jr. “many times,” but Olszewski Sr. was never involved in those meetings.

But it makes sense for Olszewski Sr. to lobby for the project, she said, because he knows what it means to eastern Baltimore County. Olszewski Sr. represented southeastern Baltimore County on the council for 16 years until 2014.

Advertisement

“I don’t see [conflicts]," Bevins said.

Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, also said he doesn’t have “any problem” with the arrangement the Olszewskis have as long as they meet “the disclosure requirements in the letter of the law.”

Blue Ocean envisions turning the sprawling property into “Aviation Station,” with indoor sports fields inside the vast warehouse, and a mix of retail shops, restaurants and a hotel. Blue Ocean plans to donate 25,000 square feet of space to relocate an aviation history museum from nearby Martin State Airport, and the company is trying to persuade the state to move the MARC train stop to the new development.

Most of the depot’s space will be used for the recreational sports facility, light industrial jobs, and apartments, according to a Blue Ocean-commissioned study of the project’s impact. The project represents an investment of approximately $175 million, according to the study.

“We have intentionally put a clear line where he does not lobby me, does not lobby anyone in my administration and I think we’ve been very intentional about how we approach the work.”


Share quote & link

Construction, according to the study, is estimated to create nearly 1,600 jobs in the county. The completed redevelopment would create over 3,000 permanent jobs — including jobs indirectly supported by the new complex. Most of those jobs would be based in the county, with 2,100 positions in Middle River alone.

Maryland designated the site as an Opportunity Zone in 2018, which gives federal tax incentives for new investments in low-income communities. The property is also part of the Chesapeake Enterprise Zone, which provides employment and property tax credits to businesses in the area.

Baltimore County has been asking state officials to designate the property a “transit-oriented development" for years, before Blue Ocean’s ownership and before Olszewski Jr. becoming county executive, according to state transportation officials. Gaining that designation would unlock state planning assistance and could pave the way for state and federal financial aid.

To ease the project along, Blue Ocean also is asking state lawmakers to give the development an exemption from the state’s 6% sales tax on all of the building materials used during construction. The tax break would save the company hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Proponents note that a similar deal was granted to Tradepoint Atlantic, the former steel mill in Sparrows Point that’s being redeveloped.

Olszewski Sr. has made the case to lawmakers that the loss of sales tax money to the state — $600,000 to $1.2 million per year during 10 years of construction — would be worthwhile, as the finished project would generate $3 million in taxes for Baltimore County and $12 million for the state each year.

“That money will be replenished over and over again,” Olszewski Sr. told lawmakers during a recent hearing.

Anderson, the county’s director of economic development, also has testified in Annapolis in favor of the tax break. He said the Aviation Station proposal is “a massive blessing” to the area.

“This site is going to bring real economic impact,” he said.

Olszewski Sr. and Blue Ocean also have the support of multiple Baltimore County lawmakers who are sponsoring the tax break bill.

“I’m personally tickled someone is going to come in here,” said Del. Lauren Arikan, a Republican who represents the area. “I’m looking forward to it and so is the community.”

The Chesapeake Gateway Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the project, sending a letter to lawmakers urging them to approve the sales tax break.

“This historic property is a major focal point in our community but has been vacant for many years,” chamber President John Hess and Executive Director Sharon Kihn wrote. “We are excited to see that Blue Ocean has purchased the property and has considerable plans already in the works for Aviation Station.”

Baltimore County’s state senators have already voted to endorse the tax break bill. The Baltimore County House Delegation is scheduled to vote on the bill next week. The General Assembly session runs through April 6.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement