“IT’S BASICALLY A HIGHLY OPTIMIZED VERSION OF A MIDDLE AGES COBBLER’S BENCH CROSSED WITH A FORD MODEL T PRODUCTION LINE”
TIF request is so substantial, it would limit the city’s ability to issue other bonds without hurting its credit rating. “Baltimore is a deeply segregated city and has been for the past century,” says Lawrence Brown, a professor of community health and policy at Morgan State University. “A project like Port Covington, where there’s no fair-housing mandate and no promise for living wages, is really a missed opportunity. It’s reifying and intensifying the ‘two Baltimores’ problem we have now.” In its sweeping vision and unprecedented costs, Port Covington is an example of the increasing influence corporations are having on city planning.
Others are concerned about earmarking so much money for a new development company with no experience working at this scale. During a recent meeting, members of the city’s Urban Design and Architectural Review Board pointed out that preliminary designs for Port Covington looked something like a millennial daydream, one that included a whiskey distillery and makerspace, but no post office or fire station or library or school. (A subsequent plan corrected those omissions.) Asked if he is worried about criticism that he’s essentially building a synthetic, Disneyland version of Baltimore—all crab boils and racehorses—Plank says, “Why is that a bad thing? I love Disneyland. The purpose of Disneyland is to make people smile.”
The Disney vibe is hard to ignore during the June tour of the Lighthouse, the first part of Under Armour’s headquarters to open in Port Covington. The rest of the area is still largely undeveloped, but the Lighthouse offers an early idea of the scale of Plank’s vision for both his company and this part of Baltimore. Plank is an avowed fan of the “wow” factor, which is presumably
why entering the Lighthouse has been engineered to feel a little bit like stepping into a theme park exhibition. Visitors walk into a darkened chamber, where they watch a jump-cut-heavy video that spells out the ambitious idea behind the facility: Namely, as other industries have capitalized on technology, garment manufacturing is stuck in the past. When the video ends, black glass doors slide open to reveal a gleaming 133,000-square-foot facility full of humming machines and technicians wearing white lab coats emblazoned with the red Lighthouse logo. It’s at once theatrical and inspiring.
This is Plank’s first visit to the Lighthouse with most of the machinery operational, though some massive 3D printers won’t be delivered until later in the week. Plank seems jazzed to see the place up and running. The Lighthouse is not just a new facility but also a proving ground for what Plank calls “local for local” production, Under Armour’s goal of manufacturing its products in the same place it sells them. “Even in a very advanced footwear manufacturing facility, you still have 150 or 200 people touching every pair of shoes that moves down the line,” says Kevin Haley, Under Armour’s president for product and innovation. “It’s basically a highly optimized version of a Middle Ages cobbler’s bench crossed with a Ford Model T production line. It’s crazy.” In contrast, the Lighthouse will allow the company to test streamlined, nimble, tech-centered production lines that may require only a dozen workers. If they prove viable, they could be set up across the country close to points of sale.
“Vision” is another big word for Plank. When he speaks about Port Covington, the Lighthouse, Baltimore, local-for-local manufacturing, it’s clear that he sees all his plans feeding into one another. Startups using equipment at the Foundery, a Plankfunded makerspace that’s next to the Lighthouse, will come up with ideas that Lighthouse engineers will incorporate into Under Armour products. Other cutting-edge companies will relocate to Baltimore, wanting to tap all this new energy. Their employees will move to Port Covington and spend, providing the tax base the city so desperately needs. Local-for-local may even bring manufacturing back to the city.
Whether that all proves to be vision or mirage is yet to be seen. In any case, when Plank sits down with Haley and Randy Harward, senior vice president of advanced materials and manufacturing, for an update on the Lighthouse, with a reporter watching, he seems eager to show that he is focused on details. “Five years from today, how long is our lead time on the supply chain?” Plank asks.
“You’ll still have some things taking 12 to 14 months, but you’ll have 30 to 50 percent of your product made within three weeks,” Harward says. “I hate to use the term Lego—but, well, think of Lego blocks. We’re trying to think how [the manufacturing process] can be iterated in small blocks, rather than where the industry has been going with these massive, massive, massive machines. So, not using a huge $5 million machine, but this $9,000 printer that we have right out there.”
Plank leans back in his chair. “But we need to get beyond novelty,” he says. “People say they’ll pay more for something made in the U.S., but they won’t actually do it.”
“They won’t be buying it because it’s a novelty,” Harward says. “They’ll be buying it because we have the right size and the right color and the right design when they want it.”
Under Armour is hardly the only company exploring how to use automation and technology to streamline supply chains and move production onshore. In 2015, Nike said its plans to increase domestic production could create as many as 10,000 engineering and manufacturing jobs over the next decade. Under Armour executives say they’re better positioned to take advantage of a rapidly evolving industry. “Under Armour is at that perfect size where we’ve got enough scale to invest the millions of dollars it requires to take on something like this,” Haley says. “But we’re also small enough that we don’t have a $30 billion supply chain staring back at us, saying, How are you possibly going to turn this battleship around?”
For Plank, the revitalization project extends beyond Under Armour. “We have 250,000 people making Under Armour something at any given moment,” he says. “In the next three years, we’ll add another 200,000-plus. And zero of them are pegged to come back to the U.S., because we’re all chasing cheap labor all over Malaysia and the far corners of the earth. It’s a crime. We couldn’t find a way to get 1,000 jobs back here? Or 5,000 jobs? Or 10,000 jobs? When you look at what’s happening in Ferguson, what’s happening in Baltimore—it’s jobs, we need jobs, and we’re shedding all our jobs to other places. The ability for us to bring that back, that’s the big idea.”
It’s a long way to even 1,000 jobs. By the end of the year, the Lighthouse will have just 100 full-time employees, half of them engaged in manufacturing. This fall, Under Armour plans to offer a version of its 3D-printed shoe to the wider retail market; it will be manufactured in a New Hampshire facility that employs only about a dozen people.
Meanwhile, Plank will continue his agitations, small and large, to support the entwined futures of Under Armour and the city of Baltimore. “It is really hard work, it’s really dangerous investing, it’s really costly, and it’s a really big deal—but I think it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “What I really want to do in life is to build the baddest brand on the planet. I would love to do that at the same time as anchoring it in a city that could really use a hug. It seems like such a waste for us not to take advantage of the momentum that Under Armour has right now.”
Recently, Plank was watching the morning news and noticed that the national stations showed the weather forecast for Washington and Philadelphia and New York, but not Baltimore. So he asked the Under Armour public-relations team to call up the networks to ask them to include Charm City, too. “It’s about making sure Baltimore isn’t forgotten about,” he says. “Getting us front of mind, putting us in that conversation. Everything we do is about elevating that brand.” <BW>
In April, protesters demanded a halt in the approval process for $535 million in city bonds to develop Port Covington until a new mayor and city council take office.