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The Daily Record’s Top 20 stories of 2011

What were the biggest news stories of 2011? Race cars zooming around the Inner Harbor? Potential promised (new development in Owings Mills) or potential unrealized (development in East Baltimore, the future of horse racing in Maryland)?

Maybe it can be summed up in a word: Constellation; ICC; Ed Hale. Or “guilty” in the cases (literally) of Jack Johnson and Paul Schurick. Maybe it can be summed up in a number: $1.5 billion for Jacksonville residents in their lawsuit against Exxon Mobil, $100 million for BWI’s expansion.

Everyone has their own list of what made the past 12 months memorable. Here’s ours.

No. 1: William Donald Schaefer dies

William Donald Schaefer, the petulant former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor and comptroller, died at age 89 on April 18 after a period of declining health.

Known for his motto, “Do it now,” and a fierce love for his quirky hometown, Schaefer was remembered during a stately two-hour funeral on April 27 in Old Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church as a politician who put as much effort into fixing potholes as he did redeveloping the Inner Harbor. He was eulogized by U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Kweisi Mfume and former aide Lainy Lebow-Sachs.

Before two public farewells in the rotundas of City Hall and the State House, Schaefer’s casket was driven through Baltimore’s neighborhoods for a final tipping of the wings. Thousands turned out to wave goodbye.

“On the scroll of life, when we get to the name William Donald Schaefer, we stop and insert the words: ‘He played real hard. He made a difference,’” Mfume said.

A bachelor, Schaefer had written the inscription for his tombstone, now standing in Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, years before his death. It says: “He cared.”

No. 2: Exelon offers $7.9B for Constellation Energy

In a deal that would see Baltimore lose its last remaining Fortune 500 company headquarters, Chicago-based Exelon Corp. offered $7.9 billion in stock to buy Constellation Energy Group on April 28.

And, after winning concessions valued at more than $1 billion — nearly twice what was originally offered, Gov. Martin O’Malley this month gave his blessing this month to the deal. O’Malley, a staunch opponent of the deal when it was announced, said the settlement agreed to by the companies and his administration helped it reach the “high bar” he had set for his approval.

The deal still needs the approval of the Public Service Commission, which held a series of hearings on it, including public comment sessions, and has said it will hand down its decision by February.

Exelon would remain headquartered in Chicago, but said it would build a new headquarters for its energy marketing and renewable development business in Baltimore.

No. 3: Trouble with the Baltimore Grand Prix

The Baltimore Grand Prix was actually two stories in 2011.

The first was the Labor Day weekend event itself, which saw more than 160,000 fans jam downtown over three days, and more than 110,000 tickets sold. The event generated $27.6 million from spending by out-of-town spectators, vendors and race organizers. The total economic impact was nearly $47 million, according to the study paid for by the city. But both totals were far short of what the organizer, Baltimore Racing Development, estimated when it was trying to sell the race.

The second story is the trail of unpaid bills left by Baltimore Racing Development. The group is $12 million in debt, with nearly half of that ($5 million) past due. Baltimore officials have given BRD until Saturday to sign off on a payment plan for nearly $2 million in unpaid taxes and other obligations. The group’s shareholders and managers are voting on a plan that would see former Constellation Energy executive Felix J. Dawson assume leadership.

Despite all the problems, the Baltimore Grand Prix remains on IndyCar’s 2012 schedule. The race is again set for Labor Day weekend.

No. 4: Political corruption

Three prominent Maryland politicos stood trial on corruption charges in 2011. Two were convicted.

Jack Johnson, the former county executive of Prince George’s County, was sentenced to more than seven years in prison for collecting more than $1 million in bribes and gifts during a tenure that prosecutors said was rife with greed, corruption and an unchecked pay-to-play culture.

Paul E. Schurick, who was campaign manager for Republican gubernatorial candidate and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., was convicted by a Baltimore jury of conspiring and attempting to sabotage Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley’s 2010 re-election campaign with Election Day robocalls telling Democrats in the city and Prince George’s County that victory was at hand and they did not have to go to the polls. He will be sentenced in February.

State Sen. Ulysses S. Currie, D-Prince George’s County, was acquitted of all charges in a 10-count indictment that alleged that between December 2002 and March 2008, he used his office to assist Shoppers Food Warehouse Corp. in return for $245,816 in payments.

No. 5: Massive leak, massive settlement

A half-dozen reporters hunched over pages and pages of verdict sheets in a vacant space in the Baltimore County Circuit Court clerk’s office. The sun was setting on a late June day and on a six-month trial of a mass-action lawsuit filed by Jacksonville residents against Exxon Mobil Corp. over a massive 2006 gasoline leak.

The reporters rifled through the 36 verdict sheets for punitive damages, trying to get some sense of how much money the 160 plaintiff households and businesses would be awarded. They had already received $495 million in compensatory damages, more than the $150 million total awarded in the first mass-action lawsuit in March 2009, also after a six-month trial.

The courthouse was ready to close. The reporters were on deadline. A number began circulating: $320 million. The sun set. Sources put the total punitive damages at more than $1 billion, for a total award of more than $1.5 billion.

The verdicts in both mass-action lawsuits are currently being appealed. January will mark six years since the 25,000-plus-gallon leak occurred at the neighborhood gas station.

Click to see all EBDI related stories

No. 6: A dream derailed

The struggles of the nation’s largest urban redevelopment project on 88 acres near Johns Hopkins Hospital were revealed in a five-part series in The Daily Record early in the year. Subsequently, the Baltimore City Council convened two investigative hearings into the status of the $1.8 billion project, which already has about $564 million — including $212.6 million in public funds — committed to it.

Despite promises of a world-class biotech park and an idyllic urban community that would energize the economy and create thousands of permanent jobs, the project is far behind schedule 10 years after it began.

City Council members sharply criticized officials of East Baltimore Development Inc., the private nonprofit that oversees the project, for a lack of transparency and poor performance in creating new housing and jobs for residents of Middle East, the African American community that has largely been eliminated to make room for the new development.

No. 7: Earthquake!

On a lazy August day, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake rattled Maryland, sending thousands of downtown nervous Baltimore workers out into the streets after their office buildings shook and swayed for nearly a minute.

The Aug. 23 quake was centered in Virginia and caused “minor to moderate” damage in the city, said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. It hit days after the arrival in Maryland of Hurricane Irene, making for a week of unusual natural calamities.

Some local businesses were quick to capitalize on the peril.

A Twitter feed from Alonso’s on Cold Spring Lane blasted half-price shaken drink specials about an hour after the quake: “Got the shakes? Come unwind.”

No. 8: Justice delayed

The average wait for an opinion out of the state’s top court reached its highest level since 1996, according to the most recent figures available. Several cases that were heard three to five years ago are still awaiting a decision by the Court of Appeals.

The court’s average time between hearing a case and deciding it, which dropped sharply after the retirement of Judge John C. Eldridge in fiscal 2004, climbed again from 114 days in fiscal 2009 to 178 days in fiscal 2010.

Eldridge, who still hears some cases by assignment of Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, averaged more than two years to issue his last 10 opinions. That’s more than twice as long as any other judge. It’s also more than eight times the 90-day limit written into the state constitution, which the court decided in 1908 was “merely directory.”

Eldridge referred all questions to Chief Judge Bell, who, after more than a dozen requests for comment from The Daily Record, said he was “giving it some thought.”

No. 9: First Mariner’s problems; Hale retires

In April, Priam Capital Fund I LP, led by Baltimorean Howard P. Feinglass, said it would invest $36.4 million in struggling First Mariner Bancorp — if the struggling firm could raise an additional $123.6 million from other sources.

And even though First Mariner has missed several deadlines to raise the money, the deal remains on track, Feinglass has said.

Last week, Edwin F. Hale Sr., who founded First Mariner in 1995, announced that he had retired as chairman and chief executive officer. Hale, who turned 65 in November, had been scheduled to leave when the Priam deal was completed.

First Mariner has been beset with capital concerns and has been operating in the red. According to a filing with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., First Mariner Bank’s total bank equity capital at the end of September was $36.1 million, compared to $98.7 million at the corresponding point in 2010. For the quarter ended Sept. 30, First Mariner reported a $7.9 million loss as well as declines in total loans and total assets.

No. 10: ICC opens; tolls across state hiked

On Feb. 23, the first seven miles of the new Maryland Route 200, also known as the Inter-County Connector, opened from Interstate 270 to the Georgia Avenue corridor. A short time later, state transportation officials said the $2.55 billion toll road had lived up to its hype as about 1 million drivers used it in the first three months.

On Nov. 22, another 11 miles opened as the first drivers got a chance to travel the cross-county, six-lane highway toll-free, as a trial gift from the state that expired on Dec. 4. Another lane is expected to open that will connect Gaithersburg and Laurel in 2014.

And beginning on Nov. 1, drivers on toll roads and bridges across the state had to dig a little deeper into their pockets. Tolls were increased by the Maryland Transportation Authority, which said it needed the additional revenue to grapple with mounting debt associated with new projects and upkeep of its existing facilities. The higher tolls are projected to bring the authority at least $225 million more in annual revenue by 2014.

No. 11: The high cost of police misconduct

The Daily Record disclosed in May that Baltimore taxpayers had paid at least $16.8 million since July 2004 to settle lawsuits involving misconduct by city police officers. The cases, compiled by the city in response to requests filed by this newspaper under the Maryland Public Information Act, ranged from garden-variety policy misconduct to a $6 million settlement in the case of Jeffrey Alston, who was paralyzed in the aftermath of a police stop in 1997, and a $2.5 million settlement of an employee bias suit filed by black officers.

About a month later, City Solicitor George A. Nilson implemented a new policy to address the problem. Under the one-page protocol, which took effect June 9, the city law department said it would no longer authorize a settlement offer in certain cases until at least one of three things occurred: the defendant officer was taken off the street; the officer had been scheduled for a minimum half-hour counseling session with a city lawyer; or the conduct at issue had been scheduled for inclusion in police training.

No. 12: Southwest fuels BWI’s growth

Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport continues to grow, thanks to Southwest Airlines.

The low-fare carrier is already the dominant carrier at Maryland’s largest airport with a 70 percent share of the market after its acquisition of AirTran Airways. Southwest accounts for about 54 percent of the business at BWI, and AirTran accounts for 16 percent. The two airlines expect to receive permission to operate as one from the Federal Aviation Administration in the first quarter of next year.

BWI is now Southwest’s busiest airport, according to Paul J. Wiedefeld, BWI’s executive director.

BWI served 1.77 million passengers in September, a 1.6 percent increase over last year and the most ever in that month. The airport has seen passenger growth in 26 of the last 28 months, much of that driven by Southwest’s growth.

The airport is preparing for a $100 million expansion project, slated to begin in spring, that will allow for the continued growth of Southwest.

No. 13: Long road to a Baltimore casino

A development group headlined by gaming giant Caesars Entertainment Corp. filed an application to build what would be Maryland’s second-largest casino just south of M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

The former site of Maryland Chemical Company, and possible future home of Celebration Casino.

The group’s application listed 27 principals and officers, including Caesars Chairman, President and CEO Gary Loveman, Theo Rodgers of the A&R Cos. and former Rouse Co. CEO Anthony Deering.

The group submitted a $22.5 million license fee — $3 million for every 500 machines — along with its proposal Sept. 23.

Maryland’s Video Lottery Facility Location Commission had tossed out the only proposal received in its first try at bidding out the casino in 2009, from the Baltimore City Entertainment Group, which still has multiple court challenges pending. A group led by RMD Holdings LLC submitted a proposal during the second round, but did not submit a $22.5 million license fee.

The state also received three proposals for the casino to be built in Western Maryland at the Rocky Gap Lodge and Resort.

The commission hopes to choose the winning proposals early in 2012.

No. 14: Same-sex marriage bill fails

Legislation that would have permitted same-sex marriage in Maryland fell a few votes short in the House of Delegates in 2011 after winning approval in the Senate.

Gov. Martin O’Malley said he would have signed the measure into law had it passed the General Assembly.

But opponents were already gearing up for a petition drive to bring the issue to Maryland voters via a referendum in November 2012 if the bill had become law.

Supporters of same-sex marriage have vowed to reintroduce the bill in the 2012 legislative session, which begins Jan. 11.

No. 15: Horse racing industry still on life support

Maryland’s storied thoroughbred racing industry was stuck on life support in 2011, surviving the year on $3.6 million from the state and $1.7 million from horse owners after reaching a last-minute deal to keep Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park open.

Subsidies to the Maryland Jockey Club will likely increase to $10 million total in 2012.

Frank Stronach, the Austrian-born auto parts magnate, assumed full control of the jockey club in July after buying out Penn National Gaming Inc.’s 49 percent that came with veto power on major decisions.

Stronach and other industry representatives sought a plan to stanch staggering losses at the tracks — $12 million in 2008, $14 million in 2009 and $20 million in 2010 — but gave themselves a six-month extension into 2012 after failing in 2011.

Penn National bought Rosecroft Raceway out of bankruptcy in February for $11 million and almost immediately began lobbying for state approval to bring slot machines to the harness track. Ocean Downs, the state’s other harness venue, opened its trackside casino in January and has 800 slot machines.

No. 16: Owings Mills Mall redevelopment

General Growth Properties and Kimco announced plans Nov. 10 to redevelop the stagnant Owings Mills Mall. The move was seen as a continuation of a rejuvenation of the Northwest Baltimore County corridor by the new administration of Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

The upscale mall opened with great fanfare in 1986 with a Saks Fifth Avenue and a large Bamberger’s department store, which later became a Macy’s. Since then, many of the stores and restaurants have closed, rendering the property like a ghost town.

The $65 million redevelopment is expected to revive the mall with 1 million square feet of new retail and restaurant space.

Other new developments nearby — the Owings Mills Metro Center becoming a mixed-use development including a library branch and a satellite of the Community College of Baltimore County, the former Solo Cup site becoming a retail space with a new Wegmans supermarket and expansions at Stevenson University — are adding to an economic development buzz in the area.

No. 17: UB law dean resigns

Phillip J. Closius resigned as dean of the University of Baltimore law school at the request of university President Robert L. Bogomolny after four years in office, citing longstanding differences with Bogomolny over the amount of law school revenue the university keeps for itself.

Bogomolny said he asked Closius to step down over issues of leadership, not finances. Later, following a study of the financial relationships between several other law schools and their universities, Bogomolny promised to increase the law school’s budget by $5 million over the next five years.

No. 18: UM law school gets new name, big bucks

What’s in a name? How about $30 million? That was the size of the “transformative” bequest that led to rechristening the University of Maryland School of Law as the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

William Polk Carey, the namesake of the W.P. Carey Foundation and Francis Carey’s grandson, said in announcing the gift: “Hopefully this gift gives you the support you need to make this the greatest law school in the world.”

The gift is the largest donation in the law school’s history and one of the largest ever in legal education. Dean Phoebe A. Haddon said the donation will be spread over 10 years.

The money will go toward recruiting and retaining faculty, supporting the law school’s clinical programs, and developing and strengthening the school’s curriculum.

No. 19:Ravens move training camp permanently to Owings Mills

After holding their preseason training camp for their first 15 years of existence at McDaniel College in Westminster, the Baltimore Ravens announced Dec. 2 that they would move the camp permanently to their Owings Mills headquarters.

The National Football League lockout had caused the Ravens to move their camp to Owings Mills last summer, but the Westminster merchants who profited from having the team nearby for a month had hoped it was just a one-year sabbatical.

In making the announcement, Ravens President Dick Cass said the team had “long, serious discussions” about the decision, but that moving to Owings Mills will allow the team to better prepare for the season.

Ravens fans can’t attend practice sessions at the team’s headquarters, known as The Castle. Thousands of fans watched the team every day during the four weeks they spent each summer at McDaniel.

Cass said the team is committed to having at least three practices away from Owings Mills at venues where fans can attend.

No. 20: Whiting gives up ‘Hon’ trademark

Denise Whiting, the embattled owner of Café Hon in Hampden, gave up the registered trademark she had on the word “Hon,” saying that she hadn’t fully appreciated the “passion” Baltimoreans have for the term of endearment.

Whiting came to her decision after meeting with celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, host of the Fox television show “Kitchen Nightmares,” on which he offers advice to restaurateurs.

The controversy ignited in 2010 when her trademark registration of “Hon” came to light — first in negotiations with the Maryland Transit Administration over its CharmCard campaign and when she supplied merchandise to a charity event and charged a catering company $25 for a licensing agreement.

Whiting said Café Hon did lose customers during the year-long controversy as Baltimoreans were angry at her for trying to monopolize their beloved term.

“I just want to say I am so sorry for the animosity and the hatred and everything that trademarking a word, just a word, has done,” she said. “Now I get it. I get it in a huge way.”