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Mayoral candidates weigh in on Port Covington, but Pugh remains silent

Sagamore Development

The $5.5 billion Port Covington project moves to the city council this week and is on track to be approved before a new mayor and council take office later this year. But the new leadership will have to deal with the decisions the old guard makes over the next few weeks.

If Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s plan to redevelop the former rail yard shakes out, the company’s global headquarters will be there, along with 7,500 residences, offices, businesses, parks and a hotel.

Joshua Harris, the Green Party candidate for mayor, wants the council to slow down and conduct an independent fiscal study. He says anyone who wants to be the next mayor should want to make sure the city isn’t about to lose its shirt.

"Anyone who is going to inherit this, anyone who wants to lead this city, and will inherit this decision should want to make sure that this is a fiscally-responsible deal," Harris said.

Plank wants the city to float $535 million in tax-increment financing, or TIF bonds. The bonds would be paid off by property taxes that come from the project, not from city coffers. The size and the scope of the TIF makes Harris and others nervous.

But Republican mayoral candidate Alan Walden supports moving the project along. He says Plank’s plans for Port Covington didn’t just pop out of the blue.

"And there is a limit, again, to the number of times you can study something before you study it to death,” he said.

Democratic mayoral nominee Catherine Pugh did not return calls requesting comment on Port Covington. She also declined to offer an opinion when the Baltimore Sun asked her what she thought back in April. She said she didn’t want to unduly influence the council’s decision. Pugh also told the Sun that Port Covington will be a done deal by the time she would take office.

BUILD, Baltimoreand United in Leadership Development, is one of the organizations that wants the council to delay the project so it can be independently studied. Rob English, BUILD’s lead organizer, says Pugh needs to take a stand on the TIF financing.

"Any elected official can’t take a pass on what’s going to define this city for the next 100 years," he said.

If the Port Covington deal goes through, the first round of TIF bonds-- about $62 million--would be issued next June. The developers say they want city approval by the end of the summer.

Tom Geddes, the CEO of Plank Industries, says Under Armour is growing so fast, a delay could send those company jobs elsewhere.

"If this project is not shovel-ready and underway, it’s going to be very very difficult for Under Armour to keep many of those jobs growing here in Baltimore," he said.

And Geddes dismissed the proposal by Joshua Harris and others that the deal should be delayed until the new mayor and city council take over in December.

"We feel like a delay is very very damaging to the project and we think that the mayor and city council should do the job that they’re elected to do."

But Councilman Carl Stokes says the council can’t do that job well. Stokes, who chairs the committee that will consider the project on Wednesday, says the council does not have the resources to do its own analysis.

"I can tell you that the city council is not going to do due diligence on this project. And that’s a damn shame," he said.

  Stokes believes that lack of due diligence by the council could lead to a court challenge of the project. And that could be a challenge for the next mayor and council.

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