Construction is getting under way on the controversial $350 million Towson Row project after years of delay. Once it’s done, it will be home for shops, offices, student housing, residences and a hotel. The project is considered the transformational centerpiece of Towson’s redevelopment. But only one of the candidates running for Baltimore County Executive supports it.
If you don’t get to Towson much, then maybe you haven’t seen the site. It is a five acre hole in the ground, overgrown with weeds, surrounded by a chained link fence in the heart of town. Several years ago the developer announced the project with much fanfare, then hit rock and it came to a screeching halt. Now a new developer is on board and says it’s full speed ahead.
But of the five candidates running for county executive, only one, Democratic Councilwoman Vicki Almond, supports Towson Row. The rub for the others, like Democratic State Senator Jim Brochin, is that the county is helping the developer financially. After all, Brochin said, downtown Towson is choice real estate.
“And I just don’t understand for the life of me how a private developer can’t take the risks themselves without government money and make a profit,” Brochin said.
Former Democratic Delegate Johnny Olszewski opposes the deal as well, saying the money should have been spent instead on schools.
“For me, the priorities are not having kids who aren’t in schools with brown drinking water and making sure we are making those investments in our communities,” Olszewski said.
On the Republican side, State Insurance Commissioner Al Redmer agrees the county should be spending the Towson Row money elsewhere. And Delegate Pat McDonough said if elected he will break up a shadow government running the county, made up of developers, powerful law firms and their cronies in key jobs.
“They’re scared to death of me, because they know number one, I’m aware of them and number two, I’m going to do something about it,” McDonough said.
Almond said when her opponents call the Towson Row deal a $43 million bailout, that’s not true.
“It was tax credits that came with it,” Almond said. “And whatever money that we forward funded we’re getting back.”
The developer is getting more than $26 million in tax credits sooner rather than later and is receiving a $16 million grant from the county tied to future taxes from the hotel, and that should break even in about 20 years.
Development has been a key issue in the county executive’s race, occasionally causing sparks to fly between Brochin and Almond on the Democratic side. Brochin said he wants to ban council members from accepting money from developers with projects in their districts. At a forum earlier this week, Brochin said the county has given developers everything they want and that overdevelopment is leading to congested roads and crowded schools.
“If development is such a good idea, let’s take campaign contributions out of them,” Brochin said.
But Almond fired back.
“Baltimore County is not corrupt,” Almond said. “The council is not corrupt. We do not take money from developers for anything."
County Executive Don Mohler said the Towson Row project eventually will mean $5 million in annual property taxes for the county and more than 5,000 jobs. And it also will include the redevelopment of the adjacent National Guard Armory.
Mohler said, “I’m pretty confident that when we cut the ribbon and this project is a reality, it will have a lot of fans.”
Time will tell if one of those fans will be running the county government.