Workers protest developer’s potential tax break, closed meeting with BDC

united workers bdc sergio espana

Sergio Espana and other members of United Workers at the front desk of the building where the Baltimore Development Corporation is located.

Photo by: Fern Shen

A group representing low-wage workers staged a protest yesterday outside the offices of the Baltimore Development Corporation, demanding that the agency release details of a closed-door meeting last month in which developer David S. Cordish sought a $3 million rent break for his Inner Harbor properties.

“How is it fair he is asking for such a big break in rent and workers aren’t being paid a living wage and can’t pay their rent,” said Luis Larin, a leadership organizer with United Workers, as about 18 protesters picketed.

At that June 23rd meeting, first reported by Baltimore Brew, Cordish said his two Inner Harbor properties are in financial trouble and pledged to invest $16 million in return for the $3 million bailout.

After deputy mayor Kaliope Parthemos ejected the Brew’s Mark Reutter and another reporter from that meeting, Cordish apparently elaborated and outlined his plans for his ailing Inner Harbor tourist properties, the Power Plant and Power Plant Live.

Rawlings-Blake May Defer Decision

A decision whether to grant Cordish the bailout is now before Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who is facing a mayoral primary in less than seven weeks.

It appears that Rawlings-Blake may defer the decision. This morning BDC President M.J. “Jay” Brodie told The Brew, “The mayor is a very busy person” and said he expects her to ask the BDC more questions before deciding on the Cordish tax break. He said no decision has been communicated to his agency from her office.

Ryan O’Doherty, the mayor’s spokesman, did not respond to an e-mail about the current status of the Cordish rent break.

The protesters say they are frustrated with the whole process. “One reason is the lack of transparency,” said Sergio Espana, another leadership organizer with United Workers, the group which spearheaded the campaign to get a living wage for cleaners at Camden Yards and is now focusing on restaurant workers at the Inner Harbor.

“At the same time developers are getting these deals, workers are being subjected to wage theft and poverty wages and sexual harassment” Espana said.

“What do we want? Accountability!” workers chanted. Signs called for “Transparency” and “Fair Development.”

Inner Harbor workers demand the Baltimore Development Commission discuss a closed-session meeting where developer David Cordish sought a $3 million rent break.

Workers demand minutes of closed-door meeting between Baltimore Development Corp. and developer David Cordish. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Emanuel McCrae, a server at the Disney-owned ESPN Zone right before it closed abruptly last year, said he was upset that the BDC “kicked out the media.”

“That money that developer is getting, that’s public money,” said McCrae. “If I want to paint my walls, I’m not getting $3 million.”

McCrae said he had trouble making ends meet after losing his ESPN job and that servers “had an even harder time than me.” Five former ESPN zone workers have filed a class action lawsuit against the company, alleging it had violated federal standards for notifying and paying workers who lost their jobs.

Tourist Mecca, “Poverty Zone?”

United Workers interviewed 1,000 Inner Harbor restaurant employees and published a report earlier this year saying workers face a number of barriers to adequate income, health care and quality of life. Servers, table busers and bartenders are made to share tips, which means workers often end up with less than the minimum wage, according to “Hidden in Plain Sight.”

“Supervisors clock out workers and encourage servers to ‘work off the clock’ for tips only,” J. Peter Sabonis, a former Maryland Legal Aid attorney who is now counsel to United Workers, wrote in an op-ed earlier this year. “Longer-tenured workers say they are laid off by restaurants when pay raises are expected, then rehired at lower wages.”

United Workers wants developers to meet with them to discuss legally-binding Fair Development Agreements that they could sign, pledging to pay living wages and make other changes to improve the lives of workers, said United Workers leadership organizer Ashley Hufnagel.

United Workers has asked the Cordish Co. and General Growth Properties to sign these agreements, Hufnagel said.

A Letter to Jay Brodie

The group’s immediate aim yesterday, however, was to hand-deliver a letter to Brodie regarding the June 23 meeting with Cordish. On July 1, Sabonis sent the BDC a Public Information Act request, asking for meeting minutes and other BDC documents related to Cordish. Having not received a response, organizers said, they would enter the building and ask to deliver it personally.

 Luis Larin, of United Workers, with letter to BDC president Jay Brodie asking for minutes of meeting with developer. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Luis Larin, of United Workers, with letter to BDC president Jay Brodie asking for minutes of meeting with developer. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“You can’t go up there, they don’t want you up there,” a lobby attendant told them. Spotting BDC project analyst director Irene Van Sant in front of the building, Espana tried to deliver the letter to her. “I’m not the one you need to talk to,” she told him, moving quickly toward the elevator.

The group persisted and after part of the activist and media gaggle was ejected by a representative of building management, a BDC official came down.

Jeffrey Pillas, the agency’s chief financial officer, told them he would make sure their letter was delivered.

At this morning’s monthly board meeting, Brodie said he was in City Hall at the time United Workers was outside his office. He said he will review the group’s letter with the city law department and respond formally. The response, he said, will probably take a month or two.

–Mark Reutter contributed to this story.

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  • Nate

    BDC to citizens and workers: Drop Dead.

  • itinerant cook

    Go United Workers!

  • Guest

    If Cordish has $16 million to invest in his properties, why is he asking the city for $3 million?
    Sounds like the city is getting hustled. . .again.

  • Mair

    Wondering how many vacants could be fixed up or razed for $3mil???

  • devils advocate

    Kinda feels like the 60’s again except with better weed. Power to the peeps!

  • Ktrueheart

    The BDC Mission statement clearly states that they are “…advocating for the interests of EMPLOYERS” … not workers or citizens.  Until their purpose/mission changes we get screwed!
    I’ve requested a copy of the Baltimore City contract with this non-profit BDC to get some insight into their processes.

  • Tom Kiefaber

    The BDC has served as a slight-of-hand shroud for white collar criminal activities for decades, and we’re not talkin’ gift cards here.. Follow the HUD money, if you can, as it gets commingled with [Baltimore City] DHCD funds, private local foundations acting as government agencies, shell for-profit and non-profit corporations in Station North, State circle planning,  scam housing projects  and lord knows where else.

    It’s a shell game that requires obfuscation behind closed doors for the public funds to be shifted and switched here and there until the trail goes incrementally cold through a wilderness of mirrors. It’s a billion dollar, white collar, shell-game smash up with 3 card monte schemes involving  HUGE sums in public dollars. This current 3 mil break for Cordish under consideration is  peanuts. Cordish’s ask is a drop in the bucket and is not representative of  the actual corruption.It’s a counterproductive  distraction at this time. Ironically, David Cordish probably deserves the 3 mil tax break he’s asking for. He’s never been a hog at the HUD/taxpayer trough, and he generally pays his own way as an efficient profitable operation compared to what the former SBER, Doracon and the over-all Harbor East raid on the treasury were all about. The Cordish brew-ha-ha is a side-show, tempest in a teapot while the big $$$ have been squandered and stolen through “quasi” public, back room crony BDC scams for decades, scams that never make the papers since the dailies imploded and abandoned any pretense of being the forth estate watchdogs. Back in the day, they knew that HUD/taxpayer corruption in Baltimore could never be eliminated. They also knew damn well that to keep it from ever becoming this blatant they had to “keep the devil, way down in the hole”. Now those demons are simply running wild at BDC/City Hall.  Try and follow the  flow of HUD/ taxpayer/ stimulus $$$ if you can cause the feds have thrown up their hands and looked the other way, only 60 miles from the once shining, now tarnished City on the Hill. “Scam City Smalltimore” is an infamous bad joke in DC, while these embedded crooks steal and misappropriate billions in the dark shadows of our nation’s capitol, as we sink in the fetid inner harbor ooze.     

    • Balt Observer

      “…An infamous bad joke…”  I’m afraid, Tom, the infamous bad joke in your post is you, and your incessant, paranoid rants about the conspiracies against you from the entire Baltimore city government and the media. Is anything ever actually your fault, Tom?

  • Curtis

    Will the $16 million investment get $3 million more in city revenue anytime soon?  I highly, highly doubt it.  Cordish has an incentive to invest regardless of a $3 million rent break.  I hope the city isn’t suckered into their offer.

    That said, the whole workers rights protest is really about economic frustrations and is misplaced, from the limited information given in the article.   There’s hopefully some nexus here between BDC and waiter staff.  People who feel powerless often times seem to get the misimpression that prominent organizations (ie. BDC) have much more power than they actually do.  BDC doesn’t do payroll enforcement — take that up with the Maryland Department of Labor.       

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