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County task force works to revive Sparrows Point

It may be the biggest economic opportunity for Baltimore County and the Baltimore region in half a century.

It's the place where 30,000 workers once produced more steel than anywhere in the world — Sparrows Point — before it was all over.

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The plant closed in mid-2012, throwing out of work the remaining employees and leaving the future of this 3,500-acre industrial tract in doubt.

A task force appointed by Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz formulated a four-pronged revival plan for Sparrows Point focused on maritime commerce; innovative manufacturing and value-added assembly; clean energy; and distribution and freight activities.

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Even better news emerged this summer: A local group led by Allegis co-founder Jim Davis is negotiating to buy most of this land from the liquidator that purchased the Bethlehem Steel property.

Davis and his better-known cousin, Ravens owner Steve Biscotti, operate Allegis, a $10 billion international staffing company with headquarters in Hanover, not far from Arundel Mills.

They are local boys who hit it big. Davis also owns Erickson Living retirement communities and a host of other investment ventures.

He looks like the ideal person to turn Sparrows Point into a gold mine not only for himself but for Baltimore County and surrounding communities.

The key to making this property shine again is working with the Port of Baltimore, which needs waterfront land for expansion.

With the widening of the Panama Canal in 2016, super-sized cargo ships from Asia will be searching for East Coast ports with 50-foot channels and extra-wide cargo cranes.

Baltimore and Norfolk are the only ports that now can handle these "post-Panamax" behemoths, each more than three football fields long and capable of carrying 12,000 truck-sized containers.

Baltimore, though, must create additional deep water berths if it is to dominate this new trade.

That's where Sparrows Point comes in.

The peninsula has six miles of deep water frontage, including a 45-foot-deep iron ore pier that can handle bulk commodities like automobiles and a second wharf for barge traffic and smaller vessels.

There's also Coke Point, a 300-acre site where the port wants to dump its dredged harbor muck over the next few decades.

That's a huge priority for the state, since a nearby containment site would save tens of millions in reduced disposal costs.

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Eventually, that filled-in site could be converted into docking berths similar to the busy Dundalk Marine Terminal.

All this would be a win-win for the county and state.

Kamenetz's task force also envisions Sparrows Point as home to a natural gas power plant as well as solar, wind and biomass power. It makes sense, since the facilities would be far removed from residential areas but close to existing transmission lines serving the region.

The peninsula also has oodles of room for growth. Indeed, no other site in the Northeast has so much industrial-zoned land — 5.3 square miles.

Developing this massive property will be tricky, though.

Six hundred acres is heavily contaminated from over a century of steel-making. Remediation will be expensive, complex and lengthy.

Water and sewer infrastructure are inadequate. Major upgrades won't be cheap or easy, either.

But the property is ideally situated — midway along the East Coast with quick truck access to I-95, an existing rail link to CSX and Norfolk Southern tracks, and a short drive to BWI Marshall Airport.

There's much riding on successful redevelopment of the old Beth Steel property. With help from state and local politicians, it could be the county's economic future.

Barry Rascovar's blog is http://www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.

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