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Kamenetz realigning Towson for the future

Nearly three years in office, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is confident that he has orchestrated a series of new developments that will set the pace for the next generation.

Kamenetz says Baltimore County is a logical expansion area for the port.

Among the most visible plans is a massive alteration of Towson, the once-sleepy county seat. In a wide-ranging interview last week with reporters from The Daily Record, Kamenetz described how Towson had experienced public fits and starts over the past two decades as developers and public officials tried to convert its retail and commercial space from low key to high gloss.

Kamenetz, who spent 16 years on the County Council before taking over as CEO, has already helped to create a new vibe near the historic Towson Courthouse, where he leads the county’s workforce. More changes could come, he hinted: The county and state may sell off a parking garage and even the Maryland National Guard’s Towson Armory, a 1933 landmark on Washington Avenue, for further development.

In the past year, in fact, Kamenetz has developed a mantra: “It’s Towson’s time.”

A new $85 million entertainment complex, Towson Square, is expected to open next summer featuring a 15-screen Cinemark theatre complex and eight national chain restaurants. Plans were unveiled earlier this year for 101 York, a $60 million residential and retail complex aimed at privately owned housing for nearby Towson University students. And a $300 million mega project on five acres called Towson Row was unveiled by Kamenetz this summer as the linchpin of the upgrades now underway.

“I have always been envious of a town like Bethesda and I thought that Towson could be more than Bethesda,” Kamenetz said. “We have three hospitals and two colleges as well as the county seat, and those three hospitals and two colleges are major employers. We have 20,000 people who live in Towson and 20,000 who also work in Towson each day. It really can be a city.”

Rethinking Owings Mills

Development issues in Baltimore County have always held a certain element of drama and politics.

A different project, the $700 million Metro Centre in Owings Mills, was also a priority after he took office, he said. A “new town” concept for Owings Mills had sputtered in the 1980s after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected plans for a large, man-made lake.

The current transit-oriented development — by David S. Brown Enterprises, which is based in Owings Mills — features private commercial, retail and residential space near a new branch of the Baltimore County Public Library and the Community College of Baltimore County. It’s located on 45 acres at a Metro station off Interstate 795. So far, the state and county have invested $57 million in the development.

“I was first exposed to this when I was a junior councilman, and I was determined to get that off the ground,” Kamenetz said.

Metro Centre is well off the ground at this point. The development has held a series of ribbon cuttings this past year as development there rolls out.

“It’s breathtaking,” Kamenetz said. “It has a very urban feel. It’s going to have apartments, retail and office. Someone who would live there could take the subway downtown to work, come back, have dinner, go to the library and never need their car.”

Across the county, near White Marsh, another new development off Route 43 is being spearheaded by a partnership that includes St. John Properties. It’s a $100 million project called Greenleigh at Crossroads, and it represents a change of thinking for the area because expectations that new jobs would flood in as a result of BRAC did not materialize.

Kamenetz said he expects it to attract young families who want to move out of the city to an urban-like suburban development — something like “Mayberry with large front porches and retail, office space and a town square,” he said.

“I kept looking at young couples in Canton and Federal Hill, where they are singles, then they get married, have kids and then they decide they need to move, to grow up,” he said. “But we have to stop thinking about housing the way we thought it should be. They are a different generation — they don’t want that suburban lifestyle, that’s why they live downtown.”

A stable base

Kamenetz sees the projects at Owings Mills and White Marsh as new chapters in the county’s history book. He said it’s essential to add new housing and development to help the county grow and to keep the property tax base up.

“The idea here is we’re advancing concepts that will last for another generation and also provide revenue for the county and stability for these areas,” Kamenetz said.

The recent resignation of economic development chief Dan Gundersen led Kamenetz to realign the county’s economic development office with its workforce development office. He has proposed to the County Council that the resulting entity be named the Department of Economic and Workforce Development and has nominated an “out of the box” candidate, Will Anderson, to head it. He said he took the move after a private consultant studied his idea to merge the bureaucracies.

“The consultant viewed it as a very unique model,” Kamenetz said. “He was only aware of one other state in the country that employed this model, and the more I analyze it, the more I realized it was time to take this new direction,”

Anderson is the chief technology officer of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, which is based at Research Park near the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “My goal was to find someone who wasn’t stuck in the old way of doing things,” Kamenetz said.

“We need a more holistic approach,” he said. “The idea of just focusing on attracting out of town businesses to locate in Baltimore County is an important goal, but I think our primary effort should be to service our existing businesses, all 21,000 of them. When I talk to the employers, they have specialized needs … it really got me thinking more to say the job of economic development should be polling our employer base to see what kind of human widget they need.”

City and county

Kamenetz said his relationship with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is cordial, but that there is a cultural gulf between the two administrations.

“I’m not in competition with the mayor, and we are fully supportive of the city,” he said. “But at the same time, we are different in the county and we have a lot of different opportunities that don’t exist in the city. We have 200 miles of waterfront. Two thirds of our county is zoned rural in nature and is on well and septic. We have farms, working farms. We have forests, reservoirs, and then we have more urban areas.”

Would he consider a dialogue to promote some regionalism with his urban neighbors?

“What does regionalism mean?” Kamenetz asked. “Because I hear that all the time. I hear it from city residents a lot. We support the city, emotionally, financially. We want the city to do well — we surround the city, so it’s in our best interest for the city to do well … but at the same time, we are totally different jurisdictions.

“We have a much different governmental structure,” he added. “We do things differently. We have seven council members, they have 15. Our population is 819,000, theirs is 620,000. They have a citywide elected council president and a comptroller and a Board of Estimates, we have none of those things. So we don’t operate the same way.”

Light at the Point?

Kamenetz said a major focus in the upcoming year involves another possible development: Sparrows Point.

Local and state officials are in agreement that an expansion of the Port of Baltimore would be a natural project for the once-bustling Bethlehem Steel complex whose now-shuttered mills were owned most recently by RG Steel and are still in private hands.

“We need to be as aggressive and expeditious as possible,” he said. “This is our opportunity to do it.”

“It’s a chance of a lifetime where you can say, ‘Here’s a raw piece of land, how can we get this developed, where we need to go?’ I think we’re reaching a point where the county, the state and the port are all on the same page. We just have one caveat: we’re not the property owners.”

Two entities, Sparrows Point LLC and Hilco SP LLC, own the Sparrows Point property, which they bought for $72 million in 2012.

Kamenetz said he convened a round table to study the future of Sparrows Point, which lies on the eastern Baltimore County waterfront. “I wanted to make sure we had a game plan in place,” he said.

“A (partnership) came up with a plan that rejects residential, rejects recreational and recognizes that it has 3,000 acres of industrially zoned land that has great highway access to two interstates and has two rail lines running through it and also has deepwater port access,” he said.

“Baltimore County is a logical expansion area for the port … and we are fully engaged on how we can expand the port to the peninsula.”

Adding warehouse and light manufacturing space at Sparrows Point is also under consideration, Kamenetz said, as a way to expand commerce there. The Maryland Port Authority said such an expansion could create 4,000 jobs “within a relatively short time,” he said.

With such a daunting list of projects already in motion, Kamenetz declined to say whether he would seek a second term.

“For 16 years, I had two jobs, a law practice and the council,” said Kamenetz, who is married and has two sons. “I was constantly looking at my watch or phone — and so I think I had a higher stress level. Now, I’m pretty much focused as county executive, I see results. So I am enjoying it — and I think I’m a much more relaxed person.”