The Baltimore Sun: Baltimore County Council should approve Tradepoint Atlantic funding proposal

Editor’s note: The following op/ed appeared on baltimoresun.com on December 14, 2018.

A proposal before the Baltimore County Council that will provide for the expedited construction of infrastructure at Tradepoint Atlantic, the former site of the old Bethlehem Steel plant in Sparrows Point, is a prime example of private industry collaborating with government to devise a sensible solution to a thorny issue.

Under the proposed agreement, which is scheduled for final approval by the County Council on Monday, the county will provide up to $78 million in financial assistance to Tradepoint Atlantic for the building of key infrastructure, such as roads, water and sewer lines.

The proposal cuts in half the costs of an earlier proposal that would have required a $150 million public commitment for a tax-increment financing package, or TIF. The TIF plan also would have required a lengthy process involving the packaging and selling of bonds.

The financing agreement between Tradepoint Atlantic and county officials holds the potential to provide a big economic win sooner for Baltimore County and indeed the entire Baltimore region. As a result, it merits the full support of the County Council and county executive.

New jobs and vibrant economic activity at a prime waterfront commercial and industrial site is what’s at stake.

Quick passage of the agreement would send a clear signal that Baltimore County government is willing to be an active partner with business, rather than an adversary, and that its elected leaders are open to innovative ideas that create and support jobs through strategic and effective public investments.

A 2018 study prepared for Baltimore County by RKG Associates, an economic planning consultant, highlights just how vital the redevelopment project is for the county and the region.

RKG estimates that once completely developed, Tradepoint Atlantic will support close to 10,500 jobs. (By comparison, the U.S. Social Security Administration in Woodlawn employs about 11,500.)

Of the new jobs created, 6,800 will be direct permanent jobs, with another 3,600 indirect jobs created as a result of the economic activity on site (i.e. meals, office supplies, etc.).

More than 7,000 other jobs will be created by construction activity at the site, RKG estimates.All told, RKG’s report estimated that Tradepoint Atlantic could generate “close to $1.3 billion annually in the Greater Baltimore economy.”

It is important to note that Tradepoint Atlantic, which is positioning the site as a global industrial port and logistics hub, has already invested $1 billion in the project and expects to invest another $1 billion.

The owner’s significant financial investment, the taxes generated and increased employment are key reasons that Tradepoint Atlantic is arguably one of the most promising economic development projects in the Baltimore region and the state of Maryland. Perhaps most importantly, nearby communities still hurting from the closure of Bethlehem Steel stand to rally economically from this employment center.

Here’s how the Tradepoint Atlantic proposal — if approved by the council and newly elected County Executive John Olszewski, Jr. — would roll out:

Tradepoint Atlantic will move forward with the construction of infrastructure improvements, paying for these out of its own pocket. The county will reimburse the company and take ownership of new infrastructure once completed. This arrangement allows the county to reap revenues, such as property taxes, much sooner than under the proposed TIF concept.

Not only will this innovative financial structure save time in getting the project’s improvements started, but it will also help Tradepoint Atlantic better market the 3,100 acre-waterfront location to logistics, shipping, distribution and warehousing businesses.

Amazon, FedEx, Under Armour and Pasha Automotive already have operations at the former steel mill site. While the old steel-making buildings have been razed, much of the land remains barren and not yet suited for major business operations.

The lack of infrastructure upgrades places Tradepoint Atlantic at a competitive disadvantage against fully-developed distribution and logistics sites along the Washington, D.C., to New York corridor. This is unfortunate because the property has a superior shipping location near the Chesapeake Bay, commercial rail lines linking to Central and Northeastern markets and major interstate highway networks that provide access to hundreds of millions of consumers within 24 hours.

But if infrastructure upgrades can commence soon, the marketability of the property will be strengthened, which should speed up job creation at the site.

All of this hinges on the Baltimore County Council and county executive’s appreciation that in these types of financing transactions time is of the essence.

Elected officials have the opportunity to ensure that Tradepoint Atlantic can fulfill its promise to become one of the major economic engines in Baltimore County, fueling economic growth and job creation in the region for decades to come.

Donald C. Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

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