Approve Port Covington
Our view: The agreement Sagamore and city officials described for Port Covington has the potential for transformative change in Baltimore
To call the agreement between Sagamore Development, city officials, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development and others on community benefits related to the Port Covington development “unprecedented,” as speaker after speaker did in announcing it Thursday, doesn’t say much. The precedent for such a thing was pretty close to nothing. But to hear BUILD clergy co-chair the Rev. Glenna Huber literally sing its praises (a creditable rendition of “A brand new day” from the musical “The Wiz”) was extraordinary. Not everyone is happy with the deal — some unions in particular are dissatisfied with the prevailing-wage requirements — but it does mark the most serious and productive negotiation between a developer, the city and advocates on issues like affordable housing and local hiring that we have seen on a major Baltimore project in recent memory.
Indeed, if anyone has reason to be unhappy, it’s the other developers in town. City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young — who was instrumental in the negotiations — said it sets a new standard that future tax increment financing deals will be judged against. It also significantly increases BUILD’s clout as an organization that can negotiate in good faith and achieve results.
We’re not certain that it guarantees, as another BUILD leader, Bishop Douglas Miles, put it, that Baltimore will never again see a deal in which “uptown is left out of the equation” of downtown development. Redeveloping Port Covington — an area that includes The Sun’s printing plant, for which the paper has a long-term lease with Sagamore — is a personal mission of Under Armour founder Kevin Plank. He has said he wants not only to provide a signature corporate campus for his fast-growing company but also to remake the image of his adopted hometown. We don’t doubt he hopes to profit from the venture, but that doesn’t appear to be his sole or even primary motivation. Moreover, the scale of the Port Covington plan — a $5.5 billion development expected to take decades to complete — sets it apart. With most developments, the question is how to mitigate the impact on surrounding neighborhoods. This one is big enough to warrant discussion of its potential impact on the whole city.
But even if this deal marks the high-water mark for community benefits agreements, the project’s scale means it has the potential to move the needle by itself on some of the city’s most urgent needs. This agreement should help ensure it actually does. Odd though City Councilman Carl Stokes’ handling of the matter may have been Thursday in the committee he heads — first voting in favor of two bills related to tax increment financing for Port Covington and then adjourning without explanation before a vote on the third — the rationale he eventually offered isn’t unreasonable. The agreement is large and complex, and it would behoove the council and the city to take at least some time to go over the details. But in broad strokes, it looks like an excellent deal.
Some of the most obvious improvements from the previous memorandums of understanding between Sagamore and the city relate to affordable housing. Not only has Sagamore agreed to double its initial goal for affordable housing from the equivalent of 10 percent of the new residential units at Port Covington to 20 percent, it has agreed to make it a mandate. Moreover, it has agreed to make a portion of the units available to those at very low-income thresholds (30 percent of area median income). In all, it serves the twin goals of ensuring a larger supply of quality, affordable housing in the city generally and making sure that Port The Rev. Glenna Huber (center) was joined by her BUILD clergy co-chair, the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors (right), and BUILD co-chair emeritus Bishop Douglas Miles (left) to voice support for the Port Covington community benefits agreement. Covington doesn’t simply become an enclave of the well-to-do.
But perhaps even more meaningful were Sagamore’s concessions on jobs. BUILD came into the talks demanding that 51 percent of all jobs — both construction jobs and permanent ones in the development — go to Baltimore residents. It didn’t get that, but it did get a mandate that 30 percent of the on-site infrastructure work will be done by city residents. That requirement is key. It means Sagamore will have to put tremendous effort into recruitment and workforce development (it upped its monetary commitment to such programs as well), and that contractors seeking work will have an incentive to include more city residents on their payrolls. Once the construction is done, those workers will be more marketable for future jobs.
Sagamore also agreed to a goal that 30 percent of permanent jobs on site be filled by city workers — and to mechanisms to help make that happen, like a requirement that future tenants advertise openings first through a city jobs portal.
Another crucial detail relates to the possibility that the development could lead to a reduction in state school funding for Baltimore based on formulas that measure a jurisdiction’s wealth. TIF deals like this one have the effect of making the city look richer in the funding formulas without producing new tax revenues for the city to use to make up for the resulting reduction in state aid. Sagamore agreed not to request the issuance of any TIF bonds if they are projected to hurt Baltimore’s school aid and to lobby the legislature on a permanent fix to a problem.
The newagreement maynot answer every question or concern about the project. But just as Sagamore’s TIF request was surprisingly large, these concessions are surprisingly good. Much could go right or wrong with this deal over the next four decades, but Sagamore has proven its willingness to listen to residents’ concerns and to negotiate in good faith despite what has, at times, been an ugly atmosphere. By all means, let’s examine the details of the agreement, but if they square with the outlines we’ve heard so far, we believe the council should approve the TIF legislation and allow this project to go forward.