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Baltimore County Executive Kamenetz spells out priorities

Baltimore County must adjust to the “reality of today’s job market” with redevelopment efforts targeted at key sites around the sprawling, horseshoe-shaped jurisdiction, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said.

Kamenetz, who spent 16 years on the county council, has already slashed payroll and consolidated departments during his six weeks as executive. But long-term health for Baltimore County will come, he said, from leveraging the strengths of large employers and key infrastructure.

“The difference with me is I’m trying to be laser-like in my focus, not spreading our resources too thin, not trying to be everything to everybody, but really saying ‘What can we do to get the best bang for our buck immediately?’” Kamenetz, 53, said in a wide-ranging interview with The Daily Record.

“Industrial manufacturing jobs are not the jobs of the future in the county,” he said. “Technology and information technology, health services, defense-oriented industries, these are things we need to focus on.”

Watch video of the Newsmakers interview with Kevin Kamenetz

Symbolic of that shift is Kamentz’s plan for the Sparrows Point steel mill if the owner, or future owner, cannot make money there producing steel.

“I would envision opportunities where there are companies worldwide who want to ship materials to Sparrows Point for assembly, and then distribution,” he said.

The plant was sold in 2008 to OAO Severstal, a Russian steel and mining company. Severstal idled Sparrows Point on July 25 and has repeatedly extended the shut-down at was once the largest steel mill in the country with 31,000 workers.

The county has in the past subsidized improvements at the plant, which was owned by Bethlehem Steel. But Kamenetz said Baltimore County would not do so in the future because steel-making at Sparrows Point is not profitable, according to its owner.

“We don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket,” Kamenetz said. “So I want to pursue a policy that helps market that site for alternative uses if Severstal closes down permanently and can’t find a new buyer.”

Acknowledging the environmental clean-up that would be needed to move Sparrows Point out of its steel age, the county executive said the site provides a “marketable” mix of highway and water access.

On the other leg of the horseshoe, Kamenetz said he wants to create a “federal center” around the Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn.

He said that effort would “encourage expansion of Social Security at this location, rather than some other congressman’s district, so to speak.”

The site sits on the route proposed for the Red Line light rail system, which cuts west to east across, and under, downtown Baltimore to the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus.

Towson, too, will receive “laser focus,” Kamenetz said.

“There’s a lot of emotional investment in Towson as being our little hometown and they don’t want to see that change,” he said. “But the reality is Towson is the county seat and it’s also a great economic opportunity area for the county.”

Towson is home to three hospitals, and two of the county’s colleges.

“We need to create that synergy where we’re developing the job opportunities with the exiting industries, with the hospitals, and also pushing our five colleges to educate people for the types of jobs that will be there tomorrow,” he said.

And the success of Towson Town Center, which opened a luxury wing in October 2008, “means national companies are recognizing the economic value of the region,” Kamenetz said.

He said stalled projects at Towson Circle and Towson Commons will begin to show signs of life “in the next year or so.”

The executive said there are also opportunities to spark development in Towson with “quality, luxury” and “efficient” housing.

“If you have that mix of students and what I call ‘empty nesters,’ and young adults, you create a synergy that will then support restaurant use and retail use that we also need,” he said.

An 18-story, 357-unit apartment complex opened in Towson in September.

“I think there are more opportunities like that,” Kamenetz said.

Elsewhere in the county, Kamenetz is seeking $2 million in state aid for development along Liberty Road in conjunction with Northwest Hospital, and said he hopes redevelopment of the area around the metro stop in Owings Mills will spark new life for the Owings Mills Mall.

There are plans to locate branches of the county library and Baltimore County Community College there, along with space for commercial, retail, residential, and hotel development.

“I think that will then create the ripple effect or the momentum that will then allow the owners of the mall to consider how to reposition the mall,” he said.

Kamenetz said he envisions tearing the mall down and replacing it with an open-air retail development like the Hunt Valley Towne Centre, but added the redevelopment could be slow in coming because two of the three property owners there are in bankruptcy.

“It’s a little difficult to get them to agree on a grander vision for the property when they can’t agree on how to run their own company,” he said.

Kamenetz is still looking for high-level appointees to carry out his own grander development visions — the planning and economic development departments remain leaderless.

Kamenetz made clear his break with the economic development strategy of his predecessor. He said he is looking for “someone from the business community who brings a more strategic approach.”

David Iannucci, who headed the department in County Executive Jim Smith’s administration, began his career as a staffer on Capitol Hill and was the state’s economic development secretary from 2000 to 2003.

“I want to get away from someone who just has government experience and quantifies success by the number of loans and grants that were issued,” Kamenetz said.

One area where the county is unlikely to have much immediate success, Kamenetz said, is filling office space with subcontractors following military operations shuffled into Maryland. The Base Realignment and Closure Act is expected to bring some 60,000 new jobs to the state, most of them clustered around Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, and Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Harford.

The county hoped to lure tenants to Route 43 near Interstate 95 and even spent $13 million to build roads there. But, Kamenetz said any development there is likely “a decade away.”

“The defense-related community [is] being transported to this area, and they don’t know the area,” he said. “So their inclination is to locate immediately next to the two bases.”

When Kamenetz was sworn in Dec. 6, one of his first acts was to review the county’s plan to deal with snowstorms, the memory of last winter’s record-setting snowstorms still fresh in his mind.

“Local government is about, first and foremost, picking up the trash, plowing the streets of snow and keeping the streets safe,” he said.

Kamenetz also cut the county’s government, eliminating 143 positions and consolidating four departments to save $8 million annually.

He created the Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections and appointed long-time county bureaucrat and land use attorney Arnold Jablon to head it.

“His task … is to make obtaining a license or a permit from the county more efficient,” Kamenetz said.

The newly minted county executive has also called for more cooperation with the city when it comes to the water system the two jurisdiction shares. The county pays the city to maintain its system, but Kamenetz said he wants to be a “true partner” to help address the aging infrastructure, which has suffered repeated water main breaks in recent years.

“We have infrastructure, pipes, drains that were built with a 50-year shelf life that are now 60 years old,” he said. “We have tremendous capital needs in the county and we need to balance our tax structure with the opportunities to rebuild these things.”

Kamenetz said the county has been able to weather the decline in property values — because taxes have not caught up in many cases with increases during the real estate market’s boom years, many residents may not see their taxes fall. And reductions to employee pensions and health care before the recession struck have helped the county remain relatively healthy, and avoid furloughs and layoffs.

“The economy will come back,” he said. “It’s going to be slow, but we’re a pretty lean machine in Baltimore County.”