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United Workers protest Cordish’s $3M rent break

Protesters for workers’ rights advocacy group United Workers picketed outside of the Baltimore Development Corp. office Wednesday to oppose a $3 million rent break that real estate developer The Cordish Cos. asked BDC for in exchange for making improvements to the historic Power Plant building in the Inner Harbor.

About 15 picketers demanded transparency and accountability from the BDC, which they said should be mandating better working conditions in the Inner Harbor rather than giving financial breaks to multibillion-dollar corporations in closed meetings.

“We want to know why it is that they’re catering to developers like Cordish and [General Growth Properties] rather than holding them accountable and making sure that the folks who live in Baltimore have the rights that they need that are being denied day in and day out at the harbor,” said Sergio España, an organizer for United Workers.

Wielding signs that said “Workers have rights too” and shouting “transparency now,” the protesters criticized the BDC for what they said was a lack of openness with the public in dealing with Cordish.

Cordish pays the city $1,000 a year in rent plus 22 percent of net profits for the Power Plant complex, according to published reports. Company officials have said the $6 million to $8 million in improvements they hope to make to the building, which is about 40 percent vacant, will help them attract more tenants to the space.

This month, Cordish announced that Phillips Seafood Restaurant would be moving into the space formerly occupied by the ESPN Zone.

A BDC response to Cordish’s request has been forwarded to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, but a final decision has not been made.

Following the protest, picketers delivered a letter to BDC President M.J. “Jay” Brodie requesting access to minutes of private meetings between the BDC and Cordish as well as records of any correspondence between the two organizations. España said they had mailed the same letter several weeks ago and received no response.

España said encouraging transparency is just as important as gaining improvements in working conditions.

“They should be taking public input on this and making themselves as transparent as possible, especially with something like the Inner Harbor that’s such a huge section of Baltimore’s economy that can really shape the community,” España said.

He said the private meetings with Cordish were against the spirit of the BDC’s status as a public corporation.

Ashley Hufnagel, an organizer for United Workers, said improvements to the Power Plant building should take a back seat to fixing the problem of poverty for many Inner Harbor workers.

“The real improvements that need to be made at the harbor are the working conditions and ensuring human rights standards,” Hufnagel said. “What’s really going to help Baltimore is people having living wage jobs that offer respect and dignity, not more private gain for developers and corporations.”

Emanuel McCray joined United Workers after the June 2010 closing of the ESPN Zone, which left him unemployed and scrambling to make ends meet.

“There’s workers out there who are on the brink of homelessness and are just trying to live,” McCray said. “Most people can’t get a break from their landlords, but Cordish can ask for $3 million? I think that’s a very big problem.”

United Workers organizer Luis Larin said the protesters’ ultimate goal was simple — to hold corporations accountable for how they treat their workers.

“All that we are asking for is fair development,” Larin said. “Fair development should respect human rights, should maximize public benefits and should be sustainable. Workers at the Inner Harbor don’t receive what they deserve in treatment or wages.”

Representatives from both the BDC and The Cordish Cos. did not return repeated calls seeking comment.