Sparrows Point Gold?

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 8, 2014 — Today, it’s a forlorn hulk, a remnant of what once was the world’s largest steel-making plant, stretching four miles end-to-end on the Sparrows Point peninsula.

Abandoned Sparrows Point steel plant

Labor Day used to be special for the 30,000 people who worked at the Bethlehem Steel complex at its peak. They churned out cables for the George Washington Bridge, girders for the Golden Gate Bridge and steel for machinery and equipment that helped win World War II.

Then after 124 years of operation, it was over. The blast furnaces closed for good in June 2012, the property sold for a pittance to a liquidator.

Now there is reason for optimism “The Point” once again might be turned into economic gold.

Baltimore County and the Port of Baltimore have come up with pragmatic plans to redevelop this vast acreage — 5.3 square miles — into a major jobs generator.

Sparrows Point plant in good times

Sparrows Point plant in good times

Even better, an investment group with deep pockets and strong local connections is negotiating to buy most of the Bethlehem Steel land in southeastern Baltimore County.

Jim Davis heads Redwood Capital Investment, which wants to become the new property owner. Davis’ name isn’t as familiar to readers as his cousin, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti.

The two co-founded a job-staffing service in the 1980s, Aerotek, which morphed into the country’s largest privately held international staffing company — a $10 billion giant called Allegis Group with 12,000 employees and 120,000 contract workers. Its headquarters are in Hanover, not far from Arundel Mills.

Davis went on to purchase Erickson Retirement senior living communities and a host of other real estate and financial investments through Redwood. Now he is seeking most of the Sparrows Point acreage.

The Point’s Potential

If Davis follows the path laid out by a county task force and the Port of Baltimore, The Point some day will be humming with maritime crews, manufacturing and assembly workers, energy operators and distribution and freight employees.

It could be the most promising economic development story for Maryland in decades.

Nowhere in the Northeast is there such an enormous chunk of land already zoned for industrial use.

While 600 acres is heavily contaminated after a century of steel-making, some 2,400 acres won’t need much work to be placed on the market.

A good part of it overlooks the Chesapeake Bay — six linear miles of deep-water frontage perfectly suited for the port’s expansion needs.

Sparrows Point redevelopment area

Sparrows Point redevelopment area

If Baltimore is to take full advantage of a widened Panama Canal in 2016, it needs additional berths for the giant “post-Panamax” container ships (more than three football fields long) that require 50-foot channels and extra-long cranes.

Sparrows Point already has a 45-foot iron ore pier that could handle roll-on, roll-off cargo like automobiles and farm equipment; a second pier ideal for barges and smaller vessels; a short-line railroad that links to both CSX and Norfolk Southern tracks, and lots and lots of cargo storage space.

Dredge Deposit Site

There’s also Coke Point, where port officials want to deposit tons of dredged harbor muck over the next decade or two. Once filled in, this “de-watered” land can be prepared for use as a state-of-the-art, deepwater super-cargo berth similar to Seagirt Marine Terminal, built on dredged material from construction of the Fort McHenry Tunnel.

That’s just the start of the good news.

The task force, appointed by Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, thinks some of the the peninsula is well suited for an energy park containing a natural gas plant, solar and wind farms, a biomass energy plant and a landfill gas plant.

This makes enormous sense. Central Maryland pays heavily to import electric power from out of state. It lacks sufficient transmission lines, too.

Neat Fit for Clean Energy

But The Point already has heavy-duty transmission lines that fed electricity to Beth Steel’s blast furnaces. Clean-energy production would be a nice fit, especially since the facilities wouldn’t be close to residential neighborhoods.

Other uses pinpointed by the task force include innovative manufacturing and value-added assembly for rail cars, ships, marine vehicles, specialty machinery and electric equipment; distribution and logistics parks, and “freight villages” offering warehouse space and service and equipment support.

Additionally, the task force noted a 400-acre quarry on the property soon will be ending its useful life. This opens the way for another “extraordinary vacant land-mass opportunity.”

Part of Beth Steel property

Part of Beth Steel property

It’s almost too good to be true.

And it may be. Davis has to finalize his group’s land purchase. Then he must negotiate terms with the state for the waterfront property. His company will be juggling many development balls simultaneously.

Of course, there’s the overhanging environmental concerns that first must be resolved.

Eventually, though, The Point might make a surprisingly strong comeback.

You couldn’t ask for a better located 5.3 square miles of land — much of it fronting deep water, practically on top of I-95 and the Baltimore Beltway, already connected to major railroads, a short drive from BWI Marshall Airport and at the mid-point of the East Coast’s massive megalopolis.

The State’s Role

It will take major investments from the state to give the Port of Baltimore these long-lasting advantages over other Atlantic ports of call. It’s not clear if the state’s next administration will be up to the task or if politics will intrude as the Transportation Department tries to find the money for this expensive project in its already stretched budget.

Given the recent debacle in finding a freight transfer site for CSX near the port, the MPA’s Sparrows Point expansion takes on heightened significance.

Environmental cleanups will cost someone a small fortune, though. It’s a key sticking point that must be resolved.

The county will play a role in smoothing the way for interested companies who see the vast potential of Sparrows Point. Baltimore City will have to make accommodations, too, especially in finding space to build a full interstate interchange at Broening Highway.

It’s too great an opportunity to let slip away, though.

For over 100 years, from 1889 until 2012, Sparrows Point was a beacon of jobs and success for the Greater Baltimore region. It can happen again — if there’s the will to make it happen.

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