Following the Money
Baltimore got more than its share of federal stimulus money, but where did it all go?
Published: December 22, 2010
CB Discount Liquors, at 4912 Hazelwood Ave., in Overlea, occupies part of a low, squat building with missing shingles. Just after 1 p.m. on a recent Monday, a slight, dark-haired man who appears to be in his 50s rings up beer and booze through a rotating Plexiglas carousel. He tells a customer who asks after a restaurant called “Charlie Brown’s Tavern” that he can buy a sandwich at the sub shop next door.
The building at 4912 Hazelwood is supposed to house Charlie Brown’s Tavern. There are at least three online reviews of the restaurant, the latest one of press time dated September 2010, all suggesting there is an East African joint featuring rap music and cubed goat meat at this location. The restaurant even received a $1.1 million government-backed loan under the American Recovery Reinvestment Act (ARRA)—the so-called “stimulus money.”
But Charlie Brown’s, owned by Jong Hwi Lee, appears to be no more. “Restaurant business is hard,” says the man behind the Plexiglas, who acknowledges receiving the June 2009 loan but declines to be interviewed about it.
The absence of Charlie Brown’s is illustrative of the larger economic recovery that, economists insist, has been underway since the summer of 2009. And it is also shows the difficulty of tracking the $375 billion the government doled out to try to save the economy.
Despite the political speeches and claims of “jobs created or retained” (now just “jobs funded”) by the unprecedented influx of cash, the government does not care if the restaurant is gone. “There’s really no penalty for changing your business plan in response to changing business conditions,” says Mike Stamler, spokesperson for the Small Business Administration (SBA), which guaranteed repayment of at least 90 percent of the loan and waived about $40,000 in application fees for Lee. “We’d be idiots to insist that he has to have food there.”
Charlie Brown’s was one of dozens of Baltimore businesses receiving stimulus help, according to an online database maintained by ProPublica, a nonprofit journalism consortium. Baltimore City received more than $3.2 billion in recovery grants and loans, almost half of the nearly $7 billion the entire state of Maryland received through the Recovery Act’s largess.
On Dec. 6 Recovery Watch Maryland, a nonprofit watchdog group, let it be known that the city’s tracking web site for its recovery money had not been updated in many months (“Baltimore, Where’s the Recovery Money?” Newshole, Dec. 6). The Baltimore Economic Recovery Team (BERT) was supposed to update the web site; members either did not respond to City Paper’s requests for information or wrote back to say they had moved on to other jobs. A spokesperson for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake promised to find out what became of BERT but had not responded by press time.
“They have my e-mail and my phone number, and I have not heard a peep,” says Neil Bergsman, who, as director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute, has been prodding city officials to update the BERT web site for months.
Absent the official reports, City Paper visited ProPublica’s web site to take a look at the funding the city had been pledged so far. It’s a lot more than average.
Baltimore has received more than $5,000 in recovery act money for every resident. The national average is only $1,222 per capita, and the state’s share is just slightly higher, at $1,228 for every man, woman, and child living here. Put another way, for every dollar non-Baltimorean Marylanders received in federal help so far, Baltimore City residents collectively got $4.11.
One of the largest single Recovery Act recipients in the city is Johns Hopkins, which received $156.8 million, according to ProPublica. There are dozens of awards, ranging from the low thousands to $579,000 for “Trans-NIH Recovery Act Research Support Protocol # 8269, ‘A phase I, dose-escalation trial evaluating the safety and tolerability of AZD6244 and IMC-A12 in subjects with advanced solid malignancies’” to nearly $15 million for construction and renovation.
Elsewhere, there are awards for dredging the harbor, adding to a Veteran’s Administration center, and training VISTA volunteers. Baltimore Gas and Electric received a $200 million grant for its “smart grid” initiative, which will expand the company’s “PeakRewards” program while implementing “dynamic pricing” for 1.1 million customers with the idea of reducing peak electricity demand 15 percent by 2015. The program, awarded in April of 2010, is estimated to create or save 360 jobs. That’s a bit more than half a million dollars per job.
It is by no means clear that all the data at ProPublica—or at the official recovery.org web site—are accurate. Charlie Brown’s is listed as a Baltimore City award, for example, even though the address appears to be just over the city line in Baltimore County.
And not everyone who is listed agrees that they got recovery money. Excel Machine and Fabrication, at 1230 Ridgely St., is listed as having received a $1.5 million SBA-backed loan in February, but the co-owner of the 24-year-old company says the loan was originated in 2004. “They have the wrong information,” Randy Perry says of the ProPublica site. “I been trying to refinance for at least two years. I can’t get none of that stimulus money.”
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