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Business & Developmentby Fern Shen9:30 amJul 28, 20110

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

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

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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