Invoking images of Baltimore’s beloved Colts football team and once-mighty Sparrows Point steel mill, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank argued in a full-page ad today in the Baltimore Sun that his Port Covington development will be “a new economic engine” for the city.
On page 9 of the print edition, the sportswear mogul makes the case for why the City Council should approve the unprecedented $660 million in TIF (Tax Increment Financing) that is pending for the project and may get a key vote this week.
“Port Covington will bring billions of dollars in private investment and thousands of jobs to Baltimore at a time when this is needed most,” wrote Plank, who until now has remained on the sidelines as coalitions of faith and community leaders, labor unions and housing advocates have charged the deal is financially risky and will deepen race and income disparity in Baltimore.
The mixed-use development he envisions on 260 acres on the Middle Branch will be “a ‘front porch’ for Baltimore, worthy of the greatness of the rest of our city,” wrote Plank.
While he was born in the Washington suburbs and lives on a 65-acre horse farm in Baltimore County, Plank has professed commitment to the city in locating his corporate headquarters here.
Plank’s letter doesn’t mention what structures specifically would be receiving publicly funded infrastructure financing under the TIF – office towers, hotels, restaurants and apartments much like the city has seen at Harbor East or Harbor Point.
Rather, the CEO frames his “ask” as urgent because of the need for his successful company’s headquarters to grow, an expansion that is already taking place near but not in the TIF-supported area.
“We literally can’t wait. . . Under Armour is out of space,” Plank writes, in a part of the missive that implies a threat to relocate. “We need to grow somewhere. We would like most of that growth to be in Baltimore City.”
Box Lunches and Robocalls
The “open letter” is the latest gambit in an increasingly contentious and high-dollar lobbying campaign over the project that began last spring, when Plank’s Sagamore Development Co. bought more than a quarter of a million dollars worth of prime-time television ads on local networks.
The company signed a deal to provide community benefits to six mostly African-American nearby neighborhoods and has transported members of the so-called SB6 group to key meetings, giving them tee shirts, signs and lunch at Au bon Pain.
(The developer plan to announce another benefits deal, with the group BUILD, at a news conference tomorrow, sources say.)
A few weeks ago, residents were startled to receive robocalls from “Ann” asking them to leave a recorded message of support for the project, linking them directly with their City Council member’s voicemail.
The robo-caller also included a phone number that led to a staffer at KOFA, the former K&O Public Affairs.
KOFA’s Rick Abruzzese has been one of the many politically-connected lawyers and lobbyists hired by Sagamore to garner public and political support for the project.
KOFA canvassers have also been reportedly knocking on doors across the city to gather signatures in support of Plank’s project.
Meanwhile, groups that say more meaningful affordable housing, jobs and other provisions are needed have been waging their own campaign to sway public opinion.
The Baltimore Washington Laborers District Council is running television ads calling on the development to pay workers “prevailing wages” – several dollars more per hour than Sagamore has agreed to pay.
A robocall yesterday implored the recipient to urge their council person “do not approve the TIF” unless it generates “good jobs and affordable housing.” It too linked to the Council member’s voicemail.
Last week, two coalition groups representing 167 organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and Maryland Working Families, rejected what they said was a Friday afternoon “last best offer” from Sagamore.
They said the developer did not provide enough guarantees and after 10 days of bargaining was “oceans apart” from them on jobs programs, housing and guarantees that school funding would be protected.
Tomorrow those coalition groups – Port3 and Build Up Baltimore – plan a 4. p.m. rally at War Memorial Plaza ahead of a meeting of the Council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee at the War Memorial Building.