Port Covington: Wrong Project at the Wrong Time

For generations, wealth inequality in the city of Baltimore has been growing. Disparities in health and life expectancies are stark with two decade differences between neighborhoods that are located close to each other, even though we house two major medical centers.

The economy of the city may be improving, but just as it is in other parts of the country, those improvements are felt by those who are already doing well. The city has invested heavily in what is called the wealthy or white "L," the area that runs through the center of the city and East along the waterfront. Areas to the East and West of that have faced disinvestment and the resultant poverty, unemployment and decay for generations.

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The uprising last year in the wake of the murder of Freddie Gray was a long time in the making. Communities in Baltimore know that their needs are not a priority for the city. They have been fighting for job training and jobs, recreation centers and school improvements only to be ignored or denied.

Now the city is facing an important crossroads - Kevin Plank, of UnderArmour, bought a large undeveloped waterfront property and wants to build a 'new downtown.' And, he is asking the city for a $660 million tax break to build it.

Residents of Oldtown remember what happened to their community when the old downtown, the Inner Harbor, was built in the 1980s. In Oldtown, once a thriving majority black business district that attracted shoppers from all over the city, the small shops couldn't compete with the glamour of the new malls in the harbor. The Inner Harbor was like a Walmart coming into the area - it put local stores out of business and replaced good jobs with low paying service jobs. United Workers has been documenting human rights violations of workers in the Inner Harbor.

As wealth inequality has grown in Baltimore, so has investment in police to maintain hypersegregation. The recent Department of Justice report exposes the brutality and racism that are inherent in the Baltimore Police department. In 2017, Baltimore is planning to budget $480 million for the police department. This is three times the health department budget and demonstrates clearly where the city's priorities lie.

Now, Baltimore is taking steps to continue down the same wrong path based on the false premise of trickle-down economics. Kevin Plank's development corporation, Sagamore, is asking the city for a $660 million TIF (tax incremental financing) to build a new downtown without providing affordable housing or a guarantee of jobs for city residents. The idea is that this investment will attract new wealthy people to the city and that this will trickle down benefits at some future date to lower income city residents.

Port Covington is the wrong project at the wrong time. We don't need to put the city into greater debt with the hope that it will be repaid at some date far in the future. We don't need to spend funds on a new downtown when neighborhoods are failing.

Baltimore needs to invest in some 'trickle-up' economics. If we are going to borrow money, let's do it to benefit those who already live in our city and who are at the bottom. Let's invest in high quality schools with career teachers and well-rounded programs. Let's create community recreation centers that bring residents together. Let's guarantee youth jobs in the summer for all who want them. Let's invest in job training and support for those who want to start worker cooperatives and other small businesses. Let's invest in the health of our residents by making sure that nobody goes without necessary care and by replacing the drug war with a public health approach to drug use.

Once this is done and we see a real recovery - a reduction in the wealth divide, a decrease in violence and a healthier population - then we can consider tax breaks for new developments for the wealthy. 

At the very least, Baltimore should not rush into putting itself into further debt during a lame duck administration. Let's have meaningful discussions with city residents about our needs and goals so we can avoid the mistakes of decades of failed development. Let's be a model of fair development.

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