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Under Armour’s audacious bet on Port Covington

(Ownership data compiled from Md. Department of Assessments and Taxation records by Adam Bednar and Bryan P. Sears / The Daily Record. Map uses polygon data from the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Information Technology.)

 

Under Armour represents the aspirations many city leaders have for Baltimore. The company’s image as an innovative underdog besting its entrenched competitors is one the city would love to embrace.

Unlike the city, Under Armour, is growing rapidly. To deal with that expansion — revenue has grown from $281 million in 2005 to $3.1 billion — the company has identified Port Covington, a South Baltimore peninsula traditionally used as a big-box retail destination, as the place the sports apparel maker wants to grow.

And not just grow.

While details about Under Armour’s plans are murky, it’s become increasingly clear that what Plank has in mind would be transformative and audacious, a project along the lines of Baltimore’s Harborplace development of 1980 for its potential to recast the city’s profile.

Details about the ambitious project remain scant, but the development of a massive urban campus would rival what other major athletic and technology companies have built for themselves. It would continue to shift the city’s development epicenter away from downtown while testing the priorities of a city administration now being urged to devote more resources to riot-torn Baltimore and less to large-scale projects.

Sagamore Development, Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank’s real estate firm, has briefed economic development agencies about a master plan. So far, the company has not shared these plans publicly, and groups such as the Baltimore Development Corp. aren’t eager to discuss what has been presented.

Kevin Plank, chairman and chief executive officer of Under Armour Inc.. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

Kevin Plank, chairman and chief executive officer of Under Armour Inc.. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

“If such a meeting took place it was confidential in nature and we’re not comfortable discussing it,” said Susan Yum, BDC managing director of marketing and external affairs.

Despite the hush-hush nature of the briefings, Plank has made it clear he has long-term plans for Port Covington. Since 2012, through various limited liability corporations, Sagamore Development has acquired more than 90 acres of property for about $76.19 million.

News of efforts to start redeveloping the area emerged earlier this year when it was announced a former Sam’s Club building on the site would be converted into office space, an old city garage was being turned into a hub for startups and plans for a Sagamore Spirits whiskey distillery were presented to the Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel.

The former Sam's Club building in Port Covington. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

The former Sam’s Club building in Port Covington. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Plank’s companies have experience with redeveloping property in the city. Sagamore Development, named after Plank’s Baltimore County horse farm, is in the process of redeveloping the former Fells Point Recreation Pier as a 126-room luxury hotel. Under Armour also controls Tide Point, former home of a Proctor & Gamble soap manufacturing site, and have turned the Locust Point property into the company’s headquarters.

All told, the company has about 1,100 employees in the city, according to development agencies.

What’s the vision?

Even though details are scarce about what development the company wants at the existing site, amenities and features at other companies offer an idea as to what Under Armour wants to build.

Perhaps the most instructive company to examine would be the giant in the field, Under Armour’s great rival Nike. That company’s headquarters spans 213 acres near Beaverton, Oregon, and houses various courts, fields and fitness centers for its employees and endorsing athletes — as well as “Lake Nike,” a manmade lake in the middle of the campus.

Nike co-founder Phil Knight envisioned a campus with a college rather than corporate feel, and the headquarters are replete with open areas for eating and socializing and plenty of green space.

In conjunction with the reverence with which the company markets its top endorsers, the 22 buildings on campus are each named for a prominent athlete or coach; Nike’s Sports Research Lab, for instance, is in the Mia Hamm Building. Each building doubles as a museum, housing memorabilia from its namesake’s career.

Around 8,000 employees work either on campus or in Nike buildings offsite. And athletes enjoy the various amenities as well: Nike’s Oregon Project is housed in nearby Portland, Ore., and the participating runners train in the area and on the tracks at Nike’s headquarters.

Despite traditionally being a sports apparel firm, Under Armour has started to venture into the technology sector. As the company acquires products such as MyFitnessPal, it may take some cues from large tech companies in Silicon Valley, whose campus culture tends to veer away from the traditionally rigid corporate structure in favor of a collaborative, “fun” office environment.

Kevin Plank, President and CEO of Under Armour, speaking at the 2012 Under Armour annual shareholders meeting at Tide Point. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Kevin Plank, President and CEO of Under Armour, speaking at the 2012 Under Armour annual shareholders meeting at Tide Point. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Google’s campus is well-known for its perks, which are ample enough that some employees allegedly choose to live from their cars on site for weeks and months at a time.

The so-called Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif., contains such facilities as gyms, swimming pools, beach volleyball courts, massage parlors, and free laundry rooms. The site also contains replicas of a space shuttle and a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton.

Facebook, meanwhile, moved to an expanded campus in Menlo Park, California, in March 2015, which CEO Mark Zuckerberg boasted is “the largest open floor plan in the world.” The new headquarters has at least one massive room where Zuckerberg said nearly 3,000 people can work, and it contains a nine-acre park on its roof.

Closing in

The fenced-off National Aquarium site at West Covington Park. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

The fenced-off National Aquarium site at West Covington Park. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

There are only a few pieces of property on the Port Covington peninsula that Under Armour doesn’t control. Among them are the current NGK-Locke Inc. site, located at 2525 Insulator Drive, and properties in West Covington that were pegged to be the Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation, an arm of the National Aquarium, that was never developed. NGK-Locke Inc’s parent company, NGK Insulators Ltd., and the National Aquarium did not respond to requests for comment on this story regarding the status of their properties.

The Locke Insulators building at 2525 W. Insulator Drive in Port Covington. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

The Locke Insulators building at 2525 W. Insulator Drive in Port Covington. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Barry Glazer, a local attorney known for his colorful television ads, owns a dog rescue and two homes in the community. He said he was approached by representatives of Sagamore Development about purchasing his properties about six to eight months ago but that the offer was well below what he wanted. Eventually, he said, Under Armour and Plank will be able to assemble the land.

“I’m sure if he wants it he can get it,” Glazer said.

Under Armour has been floating the idea of a mixed-use development in Port Covington since before the 2008 financial collapse and began pursuing the idea again at the start of the year.        Councilman Edward Reisinger, head of the council’s Land Use Committee, was last briefed about the project roughly six months ago. He said the company presented a rough draft of an idea that involved mixed-use development at the site.

“It was all conceptual. There’s was nothing cast in stone,” Reisinger said.

Attorney Barry Glazer, outside of his Swan Harbor Animal Hospital and Dog Resort & Spa in Port Covington (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Attorney Barry Glazer, outside of his Swan Harbor Animal Hospital and Dog Resort & Spa in Port Covington (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Public funds

It’s likely that Plank, who has previously expressed his willingness to do so, will seek public subsidies to build the Port Covington campus.

The most likely form of incentive would be Tax Increment Financing that pays for infrastructure improvements needed at Port Covington before any massive redevelopment can take shape. The financing allows a developer to pay for infrastructure improvements with funds from a city bond issue. The bonds are then, hopefully, paid back through increased property tax revenue from the development.

Under Armour has used this kind of financing before. In 2012 the City Council approved $35 million in Tax Increment Financing to be used for infrastructure improvements around Tide Point.           But Councilman Bill Henry, vice chairman of the Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee, said the company’s representatives have not approached the committee about any possible public financing.

Willingness to grant tax incentives for development may also be waning. Previous inducements offered for projects, such as Harbor Point, have been heavily criticized as giveaways to wealthy developers. In the wake of April’s riots residents may not be supportive of providing subsidies to a company controlled by a man Forbes estimates is worth $3.5 billion while so much attention is being paid to the gulf between rich and poor in the city.

Baltimore Sun Newspaper printing facility. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Baltimore Sun Newspaper printing facility. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Even supporters of development incentives, such as Greater Baltimore Committee President and CEO Don Fry, have recently advocated for restraint in granting public financing.

Away from downtown

Building a campus in Port Covington would continue a shift in development focus, at least in terms of new building, south away from Baltimore’s traditional downtown.

In recent years projects such as Harbor East and Harbor Point have made the southeast side of the Inner Harbor the epicenter for building in the city. Development has also shifted directly south toward the Federal Hill area, where Caves Valley Partners has proposed the massive mixed-use Stadium Square project in the Sharp Leadenhall.

Arsh Mirmiran, a partner at Caves Valley Partners, said he was unaware of Under Armour’s plans for Port Covington. But said because of  Plank’s track record of success he tends to believe whatever he pursues on the property would be a success.

Walmart store. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Walmart store. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

“It’s Under Armour,” Mirmiran said. “They’re like the biggest [economic] driver in Baltimore.”

 Staff writers Zach Kram and Bryan P. Sears contributed to this story.