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Conserve, steward, and advocate for the unique rural landscape of the Eastern Shore.

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Q & A: Brad Rogers, South Baltimore Gateway Partnership

What is a “parkshed”? How is urban revitalization linked to environmental restoration? And why does the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership consider the Middle Branch waterfront the most ambitious environmental justice project in the country? Find these answers and more by reading our Q & A with Brad Rogers, formerly of ESLC’s Center for Towns.

Boasting 30 years of experience with urban economic development, environmental policy, complex urban real estate projects, and leading mission-driven organizations, Rogers is the founding director of the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership, an innovative public authority invested in community-based economic development in South Baltimore including the shoreline restoration of the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

Rogers will be speaking on May 14th at ESLC’s upcoming workshop—Sustainable Growth for the Eastern Shore: The Balance of Housing, Transportation, and Land Use.

Tell us a little more about the community you grew up in. Do you have a different perspective on that community now, given your last thirty years working in urban economic development and environmental policy?

I grew up in Baltimore County in the Owings Mills area, which was rapidly developing during the time that I was a teenager. I would watch as the farms and forests that surrounded my house became shopping malls and highways and real estate developments. As a teenager, I saw this as a principally environmental issue, about habitat and air quality. It wasn’t until I got to college that I came to see the suburban sprawl side of the equation was the flip side of the urban disinvestment story. Both were really two sides of the same coin.

One of the things that’s been profoundly satisfying for me about this work—which I wouldn’t have been able to understand as a teenager—is the way in which you don’t have to choose between the topics of environmental restoration or social justice or urban revitalization. These are all just facets of one very complex set of problems. One of the ways in which we are solving very, very complex and long-standing issues of injustice in Baltimore is through environmental restoration. These things have linkages. On a certain level they can’t always be addressed independently of one another.


This overlap and complexity reminds me of the bridges between our land conservation and land use and policy teams at Eastern Shore Land Conservancy.


They really are indispensable. If you don’t have strong towns on the Eastern Shore, then you’re not going to get land use patterns that will ultimately allow you to conserve enough land to achieve your environmental goals. And if you don’t have high quality environmental restoration and environmental protection, then you’re ultimately not going to be able to build the economy you want in your developed areas.


What was it like working in the Center for Towns at ESLC? Tell us about some of the projects you worked on.

I got to have all kinds of incredible experiences working for ESLC. The principal project I worked on was redeveloping the old McCord Laundry building into the Eastern Shore Conservation Center (ESCC). That was very rewarding and very exciting and, I think, made possible what would later become the Packing House in Cambridge. It set a great template for what can be done with old buildings.


Did you learn anything interesting about the McCord Laundry Company history while working on the ESCC project?

Back in the first half of the 20th century, the Eastern Shore was even more rural than it is now and even more isolating than it is now because many people lived down very long dirt roads on farms or in homes that were pretty far away from a big city like Easton. Many of them didn’t have cars. It was a significant walk or horseback ride to get into town.

The McCord Laundry Company had a fleet of trucks, and they would drive out along all the dirt roads of Talbot County and the surrounding counties, and they would pick up laundry from people and drop off laundry right there at the house. People weren’t expected to come all the way into Easton to do that chore. As a result, the laundry company became this network that connected people together and linked them to the larger economy and community of the Mid-Shore. I just always thought that was amazing, to think about people who might spend, you know, weeks at a time on their farm, on their land, somewhere along the creeks of the surrounding area. And one of their main visitors would be the McCord laundry truck.

It’s appropriate metaphorically that that they worked as a connector like that, and that the organizations within the ESCC still work as connectors now.

Exactly, exactly. It’s very similar.


Tell us more about your work as the founding director of the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership.


We created my organization, the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership, as a special purpose public authority to receive about $8 million a year in casino revenues and then be a nimble, flexible, responsive vehicle for getting that money to create catalytic, transformational change. I am very lucky to be the founding director, and the work that we’re doing is hugely exciting. It’s basically what I’ve been waiting my entire career to be able to do.

We are transforming the neighborhoods of South Baltimore, all of which surround the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. The Middle Branch is Baltimore’s forgotten waterfront. Everybody knows that Baltimore has the Inner Harbor, but few people understand there’s a whole second waterfront for the city surrounding the Middle Branch of the Patapsco. We are transforming the Middle Branch from Baltimore’s forgotten waterfront into Baltimore’s next great waterfront, with eleven miles of parks and trails wrapping all the way around the waterfront and we are supporting community based economic development in the surrounding neighborhoods. That’s so, so exciting.

One thing ESLC followers might be particularly interested in, is that we have raised now about $65 million to restore the natural shoreline of the Middle Branch. And in just about a week we’ll be breaking ground on our first wetland restoration project. We call this the Middle Branch Resiliency Initiative. We ultimately plan on doing about $200 million worth of wetland restoration and other nature-based resiliency infrastructure, wrapping all the way around the eleven-mile shoreline. We’re about one third of the way to that $200 million goal.

And will the community be able to access that natural shoreline?

Yes. We have a whole elaborate trail network that we are planning. There are already existing trails that wrap around the Middle Branch, but ultimately we want to build a network of trails and pedestrian friendly boulevards that connect all of our neighborhoods—not just those immediately along the water to the waterfront—and at the same time link together all of the parks in what we call our “parkshed.”


What’s a parkshed?


It’s kind of like a watershed, but it’s all the neighborhood and regional and shoreline open spaces. We want to be able to link them all together into one network so that everybody has access to a robust network of open space for themselves and for their families.


What kind of impact do you think this will have on the community?

Not only is the Middle Branch an overlooked and ignored place, but the communities that surround the Middle Branch are themselves profoundly overlooked, ignored, and in many ways burdened by profound environmental justice challenges ranging from the need for clean air and water to the need for better access to nature to the need for greater recreational opportunities in general. When we talk about this project, we say very proudly that this is the most ambitious environmental justice project in the country. It’s not just a parks project or a resiliency project with a veneer of environmental justice, but at its core, it is a profound environmental justice achievement for the city of Baltimore—taking neighborhoods that have been isolated and overlooked and divided from their waterfront and from one another by all kinds of infrastructure, and helping them take control over and benefit from their own shoreline in the same way that other neighborhoods in Baltimore do every day.


What does it mean for a community to be sustainable and livable?

Let me put it in terms that I’ll probably be using during the workshop. So I used to be an economic development consultant. I now work for an economic development authority. And when, when you have a place with aesthetic values and cultural values and historic values and architectural values, they’re like the goose that laid the golden egg, right? That is real, genuine value. When you convert all of those things to low quality development—development that is indistinguishable from anywhere else, development that is no better than the pattern you’d find in New Jersey or Delaware or Glen Burnie or anywhere else, just indistinguishable from the rest of the Mid-Atlantic, then what you’re doing is you’re taking the goose that laid the golden eggs and you’re cutting it up for sandwich meat.


And yes, you can achieve an immediate short-term gain from that, but what you’re losing is the perpetual income stream of capitalizing on the fact that you have a goose that lays golden eggs, not a regular goose. So, for me, sustainability and livability are both seen when you’re able to create an economy that leverages the incredible special gifts that you have as opposed to taking your unique opportunities and converting them into a replication of the same old thing that everybody else is doing.


What are some good examples of sustainable communities in Maryland, particularly on the Eastern Shore?


Well, I would highlight Salisbury. What is really impressive about Salisbury is the way in which they went from seeing their downtown as a failure and a lost cause and a waste of space to seeing their downtown as a source of pride and value and specialness that they could capitalize on and use to transform their whole sense of self and place on the Eastern Shore. When former Mayor Jake Day would talk about Salisbury as the capital of the Eastern Shore, he was making a statement of pride about a city with a great university and major industry and access to the beach and a historic downtown and profound opportunities for cultural and economic growth. I think that is a huge, huge success story.



Why is sustainability an important conversation in the working relationships between towns, counties, and state governments?


Towns and counties are often forced into competition with one another by game theory which says that you should always try and have the benefits of a decision fall on your side of an imaginary line and the costs fall on the other side of that imaginary line. So if you can grow your jurisdiction at the cost of the other jurisdiction’s school system or the other jurisdiction’s sewer infrastructure or the other jurisdiction’s traffic patterns, then absolutely you should try to shift the benefit to you and the burden to somebody else. As a result what ends up happening is we make objectively terrible decisions in the big picture because we’re trapped in a prisoner’s dilemma. We absolutely need multi-jurisdictional collaboration, including conversations between towns and counties which often don’t happen. And then it’s also critical to have the State at the table because the State is the one who owns most of the major roads. Towns and counties don’t control 100% of everything they need to make their community successful. You have to have the State at the table for that.


How do zoning, transportation, and access to parks and open space play into sustainability?

Oh, those things are critical. One of the things I learned from the Eastern Shore is that the things that are most important to the quality of life and economic opportunity for residents are things that most people think are boring and ignore and don’t participate in. So everybody is glad to go to a hearing and say that they don’t want new development built in their backyard. But nobody shows up for the zoning conversation or the comprehensive planning conversation ten years earlier which decides how land is going to be used. And everybody’s glad to complain about the traffic, but nobody is willing to participate in the more nuanced conversation about how we plan our land use so that we don’t get traffic.

When people focus on the big picture, solving problems before they show up, there’s no victory celebration because you’ve solved a problem before it could even come to everybody’s attention. People are just happy. You don’t get your face in the paper and you don’t get to declare victory. But what you get instead is a world worth living in and a place to be proud of and opportunities for your children that they would never have had. You’ve got to show up for those things.




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