Editorial: Lessons learned?

Members of the Baltimore City Council spent more than four hours Wednesday night asking questions they should have asked a long time ago.

The answers they got from officials of East Baltimore Development Inc. weren’t always the answers the council members wanted or expected to hear — which is exactly why the questions needed to be asked.

Furthermore, the council members got an earful from present and former members of the Middle East community, where more than 700 households have been relocated to make way for a $1.8 billion redevelopment on 88 acres north of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

It was all about the progress, or lack thereof, of the nation’s largest urban redevelopment project, now 10 years old and already the recipient of more than $200 million in public funds with scant public oversight.

The project, known as the New East Baltimore, was envisioned to combine a world-class biotech park with an idyllic urban community in a blighted area full of vacant housing.

But a five-day series by The Daily Record two months ago found that after a half-billion dollars in private and public investment, the project is lagging far behind schedule in terms of housing construction, job creation and attraction of biotech firms. The newspaper also found numerous disengaged public officials, including City Council members, who knew little or nothing about the project’s problems.

The City Council called Wednesday’s hearing in response to The Daily Record’s series.

EBDI was created in 2002 by the city and the Johns Hopkins University to spearhead the redevelopment. As a private nonprofit, its books are not open to the public or subject to audits by a public agency. It operates with sweeping autonomy.

EBDI’s top leaders assured the council Wednesday that their original goals remain intact and they have made solid progress despite the Great Recession. They also conceded a number of shortcomings, including a lack of transparency, communication and job creation in the local community.

But their answers to pointed questions from council members about the exact number of permanent jobs created by the project and how many of those jobs went to community members and about the amount of contracts awarded to African American firms in East Baltimore were murky and incomplete. Council members were dissatisfied and even angry.

“You’ve got to tell us the truth,” said Councilman Carl Stokes, who called the hearing. “You only get one shot at it.”

Stokes, City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and other council members demanded more statistics and answers than EBDI provided Wednesday night. And Stokes said he would call a follow-up hearing.

As the hearing ended, Councilman Warren Branch, who represents most of the area affected by the project, promised that he, Stokes and Young “will monitor things closely” in the future.

It’s about time.

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