Guest Editorial: The Upton-Port Covington Connection by I. Rap Brown

By I. Rap Brown,

(BALTIMORE – January 13, 2018) – The Baltimore I remember is a tapestry of ethnic communities sewn together by a grid of streets and side-walks with beautiful marble steps.  In the lining of that patchwork was a layer of diversity that is a part of Baltimore’s identity. There were parks, shopping districts and convenient transportation.  There were historic landmarks of national acclaim and communities that served multiple ethnicities over several decades. The businesses and churches reflected the communities and typically the ethnicity of the community. The city embraced the recognition of diversity with festivals and parades, and that had been a good equation for Baltimore for quite some time.

That was Baltimore, but not all that Baltimore represented. Geography alone characterizes the city. There is this huge harbor and the fact that “maritime” is the city’s past, present and future that defines why tourism and business is channeled into that dynamic.  The lion-share of large urban development projects from the 1980s to current day have centered around the Inner Harbor and the maritime identity of the city. Today, that targets projects in neighborhoods like South Baltimore, Federal Hill, Fells Point, Canton, Southeast Baltimore, West Port, Cherry Hill and Curtis Bay. Most notably, there is the Port Covington project in South Baltimore. It’s a trophy re-development project engineered by Under Armour owner, Kevin Plank and his subsidiary Sagamore Development. Projects of that magnitude boost Baltimore’s maritime profile while embracing a home-grown, mega-successful global brand that should have a larger presence and investment in the city.

Deals like Port Covington can be good for Under Armour but the use of public TIF (Tax Increment Financing) funding for a privately-owned company’s success doesn’t sound economically feasible for the tax payers of Baltimore. Why? Politics, economics, balance and the fact that it’s public money! The deal alone tips the scales in the direction of those of a higher tax-base.  Baltimore by nature and pedigree is a “blue-collar” town and this project does very little for the middle or working class.  It addresses no current infrastructure problems and based on a study actually requires $535 million dollars in infrastructure build-out that includes new street grids, parks, storm water management, erosion control, an internal rail system and pedestrian bridge to Westport.  Sagamore has requested that $535 million sum from the city in TIF funding. Sagamore is requesting another $349 million from the state of Maryland including $165.4 million for a Light Rail spur.  Sagamore will also request $224.2 million from the federal government of which a portion will go towards modifications needed for I-95.  Sagamore itself is contributing $327.8 million.  In total, that’s approximately a $1.1 billion in project funding. That’s a lot of money, of which much has been approved.

Questions arise that include who benefits from the project. Is there any affordable housing included in the project?  Are there any re-development projects on the table that balance the effort and reach into other problems the city has? Are there any projects that reflect the cultural diversity that also defines Baltimore?  For every development project that Baltimore approves and executes there should be consideration taken to ensure that projects encompass the cultural diversity of its neighborhoods along with the maritime expression that characterizes Baltimore.  If the plans are to develop the water-front in south Baltimore and connect venues like Port Covington to Ft McHenry, the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, Canton and other venues via water taxi and light rail, there should be plans to connect some of the city’s cultural arts, entertainment and sports venues via light rail, Uber, Lyft and taxi service.

From a cultural arts standpoint, Baltimore’s contribution to the world of entertainment is legendary. Greats like Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Chick Webb, Eubie Blake and Ethel Ennis are world renowned and children of Baltimore. Entertainment is a major variable in Baltimore’s cultural arts equation.  At the epicenter of that equation lies the history and lore of Pennsylvania Ave in the Upton Community within old West Baltimore. It was for many years a major shopping, theatre and entertainment district for the African American community. Anyone who was anyone in the field of entertainment to include Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker either performed, partied, shopped or hung-out on “The Avenue.” The Royal Theatre, the Avenue Market, the Sphinx Club, restaurants, doctors and dentist offices, an optician, book stores and other businesses lined the Avenue and gave Baltimore a district like New York’s Harlem.

There are efforts to revitalize Pennsylvania Ave, specifically the Royal Theatre and other venues of the past and present. Those efforts display the passion and love for the history of the community but lack funding and political support. Projects like this are easily identified as cultural arts. They balance out the maritime efforts and other downtown projects like Harbor Point and the University of Maryland Bio Park.

There is a renaissance to be called the Upton Renaissance. The Upton Renaissance is a cooperative effort designed to ignite a PR (public relations) campaign that re-characterizes the City of Baltimore with its arts and entertainment past and partners with existing renewal projects and organizations in the Upton Community. The campaign will partner with the Baltimore Police Department, the city of Baltimore and developers to offer well-planned projects that re-build the infrastructure and community of Upton. The long-term plan is to complete a renewal of West Baltimore with community/information resource centers and recreation centers in the Sandtown-Winchester area. It means a face-lift and infrastructure re-build for the Avenue. It lines Pennsylvania Ave with an historic themed street signage with matching street lamps.  Similar-themed signs and marquees will identify other historic homes and buildings in Upton.  The city’s new PR/advertising campaign is designed around safety, transportation and entertainment. The Upton Renaissance implements a transportation process that safely transports tourists from downtown venues, hotels and maritime water taxi stops to the Upton community with ground and light rail transportation. It’s time for Baltimore to get a public relations push to show the world that tax money and government resources are being used to improve living conditions in the city for the people of the city.  It’s the re-birth of Upton. It more than just the Upton Renaissance. It’s the birth of a new Baltimore narrative of cooperative government, financing and community action.

The last two or three decades have been filled with TV series, books and movies that embraced a drug and gang culture that globally mischaracterizes Baltimore. The relationship with the community and police has been quite poor, as well. The Upton Renaissance PR campaign re-vitalizes the city’s cultural arts identity. It anchors venues that the PR campaign and city will direct tourists to.  Upton is Baltimore’s Harlem and a renaissance is due.  The Royal Theatre is Baltimore’s Apollo Theatre and a resurrection serves as the center-piece of the re-vitalization effort. The cooperative effort includes the police department with foot/bike patrol combined with smart camera, bright lighting and secured parking identical to that in the Inner Harbor and Fells Point districts. The Upton Renaissance serves as a spoke on a cultural arts wheel that should cover the diversity of Baltimore. It should also serve as the nucleus of a revitalization of the City of Baltimore and its crumbling infrastructure.

The Renaissance would plug into projects like the Sphinx and the Avenue Bakery and housing projects already successful like Heritage Crossing and Bakersview. More importantly, the Upton Renaissance is a celebration of the citizens of Baltimore that responded to the times that Blacks were pushed into political, social, cultural and economic margins by biased citizens and unfair state laws.  Citizens like these formed the Arch Social Club and it has served the community for over 100 years. The Upton Renaissance means a revitalization of live-entertainment in multiple clubs and theatres.   It means the re-vitalization of the Left Bank Jazz Society.  It means a Comedy club. It means a performing arts center for inner city kids to develop and create. The Upton Renaissance provides a museum that features an interactive, multi-user video/audio display that feature bios on historic people, places, things, dates and occurrences in Baltimore. The Renaissance includes a theatre that has a hologram feature of historic Baltimoreans.  It’s the area for entertainment and it re-develops a depressed area with historical significance that surpasses race and culture.

An Upton Renaissance is an ideal project for TIF (Tax Increment Financing) funding as a stand-alone project or partnered with Port Covington.  It should qualify as an Enterprise Zone and there may be other tax breakers. The problem is, who’s sitting at the table?  The Port Covington deal was rushed through and received approval amid many political detractors.  There should be a compromise or a project that could be combined to make sense for public TIF funding.  Initially, Sagamore tried to combine the Amazon H2Q project. The possibilities of the Amazon HQ2 project choosing Baltimore is little more than a pipe dream.  Baltimore’s package missed a few of the requirements and they are more than likely not in the 25 finalists.  Atlanta, Philadelphia, a city in New Jersey and Washington DC were higher on the list. An Amazon HQ2 would have brought 50,000 well-paying jobs to Baltimore.  Port Covington promises a large sum of potential jobs as well.  It remains to be seen.

Ideally, Baltimore should not allow for a TIF funding project that doesn’t benefit the taxpayers of the city. Port Covington needs a cultural Arts partner.  Based on an article in the Baltimore Sun entitled, Port Covington Redevelopment Examined, the purchase of the Bonds would give Sagamore additional tax breaks. “The buyer of the bonds—in this case, at least initially, Sagamore and its financial partners – can count the income from these bonds as tax exempt.” There are additional fees required but ultimately Sagamore wins.  The school system doesn’t seem to win.  The infrastructure doesn’t seem to win.  The other wins need to be built in.  The Upton Renaissance has community and cultural arts constructed in its lining.  It includes a museum and walk of fame. The infrastructure design will allow partners like Comcast, Verizon and others to include gigabit internet access for WiFi service within venues and to attract small business start-ups in the IT, coding and software-development space. Upton is a business district and serves also as an incubator.  A sophisticated IT/Telecom infrastructure is an essential part of the Upton Renaissance.  It allows for Baltimore to close down their borders and keep it’s artistic, STEM and business talent in the city. It also helps justify the need for the project.

Ultimately, Port Covington will get done.  “Sagamore is addressing, at least in theory, and allowing for 10% of the housing to be affordable.”  Based on the Port Covington article Sagamore is also making promises on hiring. “Sagamore has offered to pay prevailing wages –about equal to union wages—on a quarter of the infrastructure work on the site.  But some Unions say that is not enough. They want the company to guarantee higher portions of the work are dedicated for union employees.”  The group BUILD (Baltimore United In Leadership Development) is asking for 51% local hiring guarantee.  Yes, there is negotiating going on, but the city of Baltimore doesn’t seem to be aggressive in the negotiation.  Someone is either asleep at the wheel or not committed to large re-development in neighborhoods away from the maritime areas.

The Upton Renaissance is the Public Relations tool for the City of Baltimore to consider moving forward. It should be further planned and introduced to the Baltimore City Council.  Without a plan there is no way to negotiate a deal that benefits all parties.  Baltimore could be stuck with paying for Port Covington until 2038 with no other plans to address the decaying non-downtown communities and crumbling infrastructure.  In all reality, $1.1 billion could go far in re-vitalizing the existing communities in the city of Baltimore.  Kevin Plank just came to the table with his idea first. It’s time to either partner with Sagamore or introduce projects on a similar scale that does address the real needs of the city.  Someone in City Hall needs to stop and look at the numbers and variables again for this Port Covington deal.  We are talking about a billion-dollar project that may not able to be seen from a car.  Worse, the citizens would be paying taxes to pay for something they can’t afford to enjoy.-