And Now it’s Over.
After millions of advertising dollars, over a hundred public testimonies, 3 workgroup meetings, hours of hearings, and days of negotiations, Port Covington seems like a done deal.
Update: On Monday, September 19, the City Council voted 12–1 to approve the Port Covington deal. Councilman Kraft voted against the bills, Councilman Henry and Councilwoman Clarke abstained.
It was swelteringly hot outside the War Memorial Building just past 5 on July 27th. There was a mass of people trying to get into the hearing of the Taxation, Economic Development, and Finance Committee where they would consider the three bills related to the Port Covington TIF. Months earlier, Sagamore, the developer arm of Under Armour’s Kevin Plank, had unveiled a plan for an enormous development called Port Covington in South Baltimore, the highlight of which would be a shiny new Under Armour campus.
While I heard no voices of total opposition to the project (at least from those who understand the TIF mechanism), there were three chief concerns: the project would not be inclusive (this unease was exacerbated when the mayor announced that Port Covington would be exempt from the city’s inclusionary housing law); the project could cost schools hundreds of millions, possibly over a billion dollars, because the state education funding formula counts TIF developments as contributing tax revenue, even as that revenue goes to paying off bonds, not into the city general fund; and there were not sufficient promises regarding local hiring (i.e. making sure city residents got hired) and prevailing wage.
And it was a mixture of these concerns that brought nearly a thousand residents of Baltimore, many of whom were now locked out, to the War Memorial Building on a hot Wednesday. “It’s full.” “They’re using the small downstairs room.” “Not letting anyone else in, they said.” The message filtered back as the already slow line for entrance ground to a stop. But people were angry, hot, and fed up. The crowd surged forward, local activists Shorty and Payam yanked one of the doors open while an elderly woman with white hair stood in the doorway, chants erupted, and about 20 minutes later, committee chair Carl Stokes came out to part the sea of security guards that were blocking the doors to allow the people in. “We’re moving upstairs!”
The hearing was long, and even after four hours, when the building closed, none of the 130 members of the public who signed up to speak had. Despite that, I walked out of the hearing reassured that we might be able to win this fight — we being the good guys, the people fighting to end segregation, protect schools, etc. Reverend Glenna Huber of BUILD had delivered a thunderous testimony/sermon about developers, declaring “it’s impossible to trust when you’ve been played so many times” to a standing ovation and applause from most in the audience. There was a feeling of confidence I left with that night.
7 weeks later, that confidence is diminished. The MOU released yesterday afternoon between the city and Sagamore contains no definitive language protecting city schools funding beyond vagueness around not issuing bonds that could affect schools. The housing portion is considered weak by many advocates, including Barbara Samuels of the ACLU, who called it “worse than expected” and released a side-by-side comparison of this MOU and the previous one and Dr. Lawrence Brown of Morgan State University, who said that the MOU “does not represent racial and economic equity”. Groups previously united in wanting the council to “slow your roll” in July are at odds. The same people who applauded the BUILD representatives in July now criticize them for helping to ram a bad deal through. Last Thursday’s committee hearing saw insults hurled and tensions heightened. Committee chair Carl Stokes used his final moment of power to postpone a vote on the final of the three Port Covington-related bills. And yesterday morning, 11 members of the city council, led by South Baltimore councilman and Under Armour mascot Eric Costello, filed a petition discharging the 3rd bill from the committee (a legal but fairly extraordinary procedural trick), bringing all three to a preliminary vote before the full council two hours after the public release of the negotiated MOU. After a few weeks of optimism, it feels like we aren’t that far from where we were July 26th: victims of maneuvering intended to speed up the TIF’s approval, holding a deal with promises and loopholes. The council is finished with your little games now, Baltimore citizens and Councilman Stokes, the petition signers seemed to imply. It’s time for the grownups to hurry up and handle business.
This isn’t to say organizing efforts failed. BUILD had the superior organizing at the hearings I attended and watched. They were the sole negotiators at the table with Sagamore after two other advocacy groups, Build Up Baltimore and PORT3, citing Sagamore’s inadequate commitments toward racial and economic equality, walked out. They are lauding this deal as “unprecedented” and, well, they worked for it. It might not satisfy everyone but they laid the blueprint for next time. Is it better than the prior MOU(s)? Yes. Does it go far enough as some advocates wanted in addressing concerns about inclusiveness and protecting schools? No. (There is still a chance, I should note, that we could see advocates push council members to offer amendments before the final vote, but a major change to the MOU is unlikely.)
And now, we move forward.
So where do we go from here? I’m committed to helping in any way I can to make sure Sagamore keeps its promises. Many discussions since Thursday center around the loopholes and inadequacies in the deal. The window for significant changes and ending those loopholes has closed and the people pushing Port Covington now must also push the development to live up to its full potential. As much affordable housing as possible. Schools held harmless from state cuts. Jobs for city residents.
About the writer: David Pontious is a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park studying Government & Politics. He graduated from Baltimore City College high school in May 2016 with an International Baccalaureate diploma after 13 years at Baltimore City Public Schools. Once he has received his undergraduate degree, he intends to go to law school. He speaks for himself and writes for himself, and may share those writings from time to time.
Follow him on Twitter: @DavidPontious
EDIT 1:20 PM: Clarified that Build Up and PORT3 walked out of negotiations because they did not want to support a deal without racial and economic equity.
EDIT 2:13 PM: Added colon to improve clarity in 5th paragraph.