Center Maryland: Rising from the ashes at Sparrows Point: Hope and a new future

SP-NtoS_01 - from TradePoint Atlantic

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on January 27, 2016.

By Donald C. Fry

In case you missed the news, there was a lot to celebrate last week at Sparrows Point, once home to one of the mightiest steelmaking operations this country has ever seen – but which had fallen on hard times with the U.S. industry’s demise and then the closure in 2013 of RG Steel, the last steelmaker to operate there.

First, Sparrows Point Terminal, the firm that took over the sprawling 3,100-acre property in Southeast Baltimore County after it was sold at auction, announced a new name: TradePoint Atlantic. The new identity is part of a strategy to market the location globally to prospective logistics, distribution, transportation and manufacturing tenants now that most of the steel operations have been cleared away for redevelopment.

That announcement was soon followed by news that TradePoint Atlantic had inked a deal with FedEx Corp. to locate a new 300,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art distribution facility on the property. It’s expected to open in 2017 and initially employ 150 people.

With the FedEx deal under their belt and other deals in the works, TradePoint officials have an upbeat outlook for the property. They see it emerging as a major new distribution, logistics, transportation and manufacturing hub on the East Coast, potentially attracting tenants worldwide with its existing rail system, access to major interstate highways, deep water port and strong local labor pool. Within the next decade about 10,000 may be employed there, TradePoint Atlantic officials estimate.

If you were to visit this vast peninsula today, you would see what appears to resemble a vast moonscape littered with debris as clearing operations continue.

In several years though, as TradePoint Atlantic signs more deals, the property hopefully will bustle with activity as trucks, trains and ships come and go serving new modern business operations that boost growth and jobs for the Baltimore region.

What is interesting and worth noting is that the future envisioned by the new owners of the property closely mirrors that of an advisory group I was honored to be part of and named the Sparrows Point Partnership. The group was formed in 2012 at the request of Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz when the outlook for the property wasn’t so clear.

With a succession of steel manufacturers coming and going over the years with little or no success, it had become clear that a new plan for the property was badly needed. To his credit, County Executive Kamenetz recognized the opportunity to provide direction and open up the eyes of many as to the potential of the site.

Fortunately, this advisory group was comprised of top regional experts in the business, port, maritime, commercial real estate, logistics, and manufacturing industries. The panel was committed to proposals that would result, as the report states, in “family sustaining jobs for the greatest number of residents and widespread opportunities for local businesses.”

As the work of the Sparrows Point Partnership commenced it became clear that old thinking wouldn’t do and the property’s location and existing assets represented a rather remarkable opportunity.

A bold new vision for the property was needed if this opportunity was to be leveraged fully.

The vision would need to honor the proud tradition of the location as a major employment hub and key driver of the economy. But the partnership also believed the vision must embrace rising new industries that could take advantage of the property’s unique location on the East Coast and its valuable assets, including rail tracks serving two major freight line carriers and close proximity to the Port of Baltimore.

One year later the 19-member partnership issued its report, “Common Ground – A Vision for Redeveloping Sparrows Point and Leveraging Industrial Assets of Baltimore County.”

In the report, the partnership identified what it believed were four primary uses for the land that were not only smart fits for the location and its existing assets, but also had strong upsides for economic growth, jobs and long-term success.

The identified preferred uses were: Distribution/logistics, advanced manufacturing, port/maritime industries, and clean energy and renewables.

These industries, the group reasoned, held promise as key drivers of the new economy. They were also a perfect fit individually or collectively for the location and its assets – which would be expensive and hard to replicate almost anywhere else on the East Coast, if not the country.

The partnership’s recommendations found strong support from the county executive, a host of other public officials, and perhaps more importantly local communities near the property.

In some ways this all set the stage for the succession of events that have unfolded in the years hence as the new owners also saw promise in the property as a unique redevelopment opportunity.

Indeed as the Common Ground report envisioned and the TradePoint Atlantic’s announcement last week point to, hope and a new future are rising from the ashes of the steel industry that served the region, proudly and well, for decades.

The entire Baltimore region was fortunate for that economic engine and is fortunate today for the new jobs and economic future taking shape on this peninsula-shaped jewel.

Don Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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