Gov. Hogan Raises Flag for Bainbridge Economic Development; Del. Hornberger Secret Plan Threatens Rest of Project, $ Cut for Cecil County, Port Deposit

May 1, 2022

A CECIL TIMES Special Report

Redevelopment of the sprawling 1,185-acre Bainbridge site in Port Deposit, stalled for two decades by environmental and logistical problems, was celebrated by Gov. Hogan recently as a flag was raised on the first of three stages of the project that he praised as a model of economic development. But a last-minute provision secretly inserted into a parks bill by Del. Kevin Hornberger (R-35) could complicate or derail the next phase of the economic revitalization plan and, state legislative analysts say, jeopardize anticipated revenues to Cecil County and the town of Port Deposit.

In addition, the long wished-for re-use of the historic Tome School property—devastated by arsonists and looters over the years—is also in jeopardy under provisions that could prevent private re-development of that 50-acre portion of the Bainbridge site through historic preservation tax credits to save the classic façade of the school—which state historical reviewers have determined is the only salvageable part of the school. And there is no assurance in the secret plan that the state would come up with the taxpayer-provided money that would be needed to salvage Tome as part of a state park.

Hornberger did not consult in advance with many key players in the Bainbridge project, including fellow delegation members, the Cecil County Council and, most importantly, the Bainbridge Development Corporation, which was created by the state to direct the overall reincarnation of the Bainbridge site.

Hornberger’s plan would remove the BDC from any role in redeveloping up to 150 acres of the site and turn over ownership to the state Dept. of Natural Resources to be used as a park. No funds were allocated to a park project, and no site plans or specifications for roads or public access to a park were included. But his proposal demands that DNR come up with a plan by the end of December, 2022 and the BDC must turn over the site to DNR ownership by June 1, 2023.

Hornberger did hold a hastily-convened Zoom call with leaders of the Town of Port Deposit, which years ago annexed the full Bainbridge site into town limits and rezoned it as a Business and Industrial Employment Zone, to tell them of his plan. The mayor and Town Council responded with a letter strongly opposing the Hornberger plan. (Cecil Times obtained a copy of the town’s letter.)

But Hornberger had already pushed ahead with his proposal, cast as an amendment to a popular Senate-passed parks bill (SB541), which was then approved without any hearing on the matter by the House Environment and Transportation Committee on 3/29/2022, and the full House of Delegates a day later.

If his plan was so great for Cecil County, Bainbridge and the nearby district he represents, why the secrecy leading up to its last-minute debut in Annapolis?

Perhaps because wider scrutiny of the details, and the potential impact on the overall Bainbridge re-development plan, could have raised warning flags—as it did for the Town of Port Deposit and non-partisan analysts for the state Department of Legislative Services. And getting his plan on Gov. Hogan’s radar might have nipped things in the bud, just as Hogan was getting ready to tout the entire Bainbridge project as a cornerstone of his administrations’ plans to promote economic development in the area.

The governor traveled to Cecil County on 4/28/2022 to raise a ceremonial flag over a 440-acre portion of the Bainbridge property that will be home to a major warehouse and logistics center, consisting of four buildings housing 3.7 million square feet of industrial and business activity. (Sewer services have not yet been fully extended to the site and the actual occupancy of the facilities is about a year away.)

“The entire mission of our state government continues to be keeping Maryland open for business, and today represents the culmination of literally decades of effort to do just that as we officially kick off the redevelopment of more than 400 acres of land in this key location along the I-95 corridor,” Hogan said. “There is a major distribution and logistics market in this region, and the development of Bainbridge will be a tremendous asset and help us continue to meet the need for more and more companies seeking to do business in our state.”

The total Bainbridge property consists of 1,185 acres. The newly christened Phase 1 portion covers 440-acres while the next stage of development was expected to cover about 685-acres and a Phase 3 sector would cover the 50-acre Tome School property and an unspecified nearby acreage for a planned archeological “dig” seeking to find any remnants of a small Snow Hill community of freed African-American slaves who once lived in the area. (No buildings are standing on that site, according to the BDC.)

Some areas of the Bainbridge lands remain contaminated due to past pollution by the US Navy that could not be remediated but the Tome School site is safe for redevelopment, according to the BDC. The organization’s fall meeting in 2021 discussed possible re-development of the school property under historic preservation tax credits that could be attractive to developers for a creative re-use of the historic façade, which is the only remaining part of the school that could be salvaged.

The full impact of the Hornberger amendment on the overall Bainbridge project “remains to be determined,” according to Carl Roberts, chairman of the BDC. But, he added,” I believe it could have a detrimental effect on Phase 2.”

The Town of Port Deposit is very concerned about the amendment and its impact on the town, both financially and in having a major role in the planning process as it has had in the past, especially for the Tome lands, according to a letter signed by the mayor and town council members and sent to Gov. Hogan.

“Town officials are aware of the unique development opportunities and challenges for Phase III development. The Town intended to ensure all historically significant amenities (Snow Hill Archeological site, Tome School, Bainbridge Naval Training Center), potential recreational options, potential economic options, and preservation of natural resources, to connect and support “old town” were recognized and included in the development,” the letter stated. But the Hornberger amendment “will limit the potential restoration of the historic Tome School buildings, and eliminate economic development opportunities resulting in lost revenue for the Town.”

“The Town and surrounding community have been denied the opportunity to control our own destiny,” the letter concluded. The town would have a representative on a local advisory panel proposed by the amendment but DNR would have the final say on all decisions. The BDC was excluded even from the advisory panel.

In an analysis of the Hornberger amendment, the state Dept. of Legislative Services wrote: “Cecil County and Town of Port Deposit property tax revenues may decrease, as early as fiscal 2024 (the timing of any revenue decreases is unclear but it is assumed for the purposes of this analysis that revenues could decrease as early as fiscal 2024 due to the transfer of the land for the Port of Deposit State Historical Park to DNR…”

Hornberger’s amendment was also deceptive in claiming that the Tome School was related to the history of Black citizens, like the Snow Hill area. In fact, the Tome School of that era was a boarding school for wealthy white boys. Playing that angle may have eased Hornberger’s bid to add the Bainbridge site into an amendment offered by the chief sponsor of the House version of the legislation, House Majority Leader Eric Leuteke (D-Montgomery), who added an amendment to the legislation to create a “partnership” park to link multiple existing preserved sites related to the history of slavery and the Underground Railroad in his county.

The Senate bill had passed on a unanimous vote and passage of a parks bill was considered “greased” in the House, sources said, especially with the backing of the overall plan by the Majority Leader. When the measure came before the House Environment and Transportation Committee on 3/29/2022, one panel member was surprised to learn for the first time of the Bainbridge/Port Deposit add-on.

Del. Jay Jacobs (R-36), who represents portions of Cecil County and has long been an advocate of economic development initiatives in the county, told Cecil Times that was the first time he learned of the proposal and that Hornberger had not shared with him the add-on language regarding Bainbridge. But the amendment was not put up to a separate vote in the committee

“What could I do? Vote against the entire bill? It was clearly going to go forward” because of the Democratic Majority Leader’s involvement, Jacobs said. He added that he had long advocated a separate Kent County provision that was included in the original bill and did not want to risk possible loss of that project.

But one local delegate did object when the amended bill reached the House floor. Del. Steve Arentz (R-36) changed his vote from yes to no and cast the lone vote in the House against the amended bill. CECIL TIMES left several messages with him seeking comment but he did not respond.

The “development partner” for the overall Bainbridge project is Kenneth Michael, a Lanham, MD-based businessman who has contributed millions of dollars to support the ongoing planning and redevelopment effort for the site, so that taxpayers have not had to bear all the costs. As part of that process, he has accumulated “credits” which can be cashed in when a portion of the site is cleared, cleaned up and ready to be sold to another outside developer such as for the new Phase 1 site. But the Hornberger plan could make the Phase 2 area less desirable for other developers and complicate the planning process.

Michael and his stable of businesses that operate out of the same Lanham, MD address have been major political campaign donors for many years, in Cecil County and around the state to politicians of both political parties. But Kevin Hornberger has not received any donations from him or related businesses, according to a review of state Board of Elections campaign finance records. (He did give a $1,000 donation to Cecil County Executive Danielle Hornberger (R), Kevin’s wife, in her 2020 political campaign.)

It is not the first time that Hornberger has inserted himself into local matters with no or minimal consultation with affected parties, from trying to get massive wild elk to roam free in Elk Neck State Park to trying to upend Cecil College’s nationally recognized nursing program and its “articulation” agreements that allow students to transfer their credits seamlessly to Towson University to obtain a BSN degree. Those efforts failed.

It will now be up to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR)—and the Hogan administration and/or whoever wins the gubernatorial election of 2022– to decide how to handle the next steps in responding to Hornberger’s latest gambit.

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