ELKTON — Developers Stonewall Capital and Trammell Crow have teamed up with town and county officials with plans to build out a $700 million planned use development on the long-stagnant south side of Elkton, promising to transform the county seat’s future.
With hopes to start construction in 2020, the PUD will include up to 1,000 homes and some recreation, retail and industrial use within the 650-acre parcel between U.S. Route 40 and Frenchtown Road, bordered by Maloney Road and the Elk River.
Property owner Southside LLC and Grays Hill Development Corp Inc., both of which are principally operated by local homebuilder Bruce Schneider, originally planned for thousands of homes until the housing market crashed.
But on July 31, it was revealed that Stonewall Capital principal owner Ray Jackson, who is behind many Baltimore residential projects, was working on a contract to purchase the land.
The new vision is to develop the entire project in phases with sections of land carved out for the “plan inside the plan” developed with heavy input with Elkton officials, Jackson said. The PUD concept includes 250 acres for industrial use, a combined 120 acres for single-family homes and apartments, roughly 7 acres for commercial and 50 acres for a sports park.
It’s predicted that once the project — now rebranded Southfields — is completed, commercial and industrial spaces will bring between 1,000 to 1,400 jobs to Elkton.
The hope is to have the entire project built out in five to seven years, Jackson said. Some aspects may be built simultaneously, while others bordering wetlands face a few logistical challenges that could mean development could take longer.
“This kind of project does not happen overnight. It takes time,” Jackson said. “But I believe this project needs to be mutually beneficial for all the partners at the table. It has to work for everyone or it doesn’t work for anyone. With the commitment from the town and the county, and the largest homebuilder and the industrial builder, this project will be transformational for Elkton.”
To put it in perspective, Elkton’s assessable tax base is currently $1.4 billion and has not seen significant gains in assessed property values since the recession. The $700 million Southfields project represents half of the entire town’s assessable base.
“This is a legacy project,” Mayor Rob Alt said July 31 during a news conference at town hall. “We as a team are going to be able to shape the entire future of Elkton for the next 50 years.”
The PUD concept includes 250 acres for industrial use on the west side of the lands near Maloney Road. Trammell Crow, a Fortune 500 company that built the county’s Amazon Fulfillment Center and is building a warehouse at the former Nazarene Camp in North East, is signed on to develop up to 4 million square feet of warehouse space.
Single-family homes are proposed for a 33-acre parcel on the west side of state Route 213 and bordering Frenchtown Road. Another pocket of single-family homes, complete with community amenities like a clubhouse and a pool, is planned on the east side of Route 213, following the curve of Whitehall Road.
Jackson hinted that the homes could be developed by “one of the largest (builders) in the nation,” but said he couldn’t disclose the firm just yet.
A 300-unit, high-end apartment complex is planned on the east side of Route 213 and bordered by Frenchtown Road. The apartment complex could be up to four stories in height and also includes a pool and a clubhouse. Another retail space is planned next to the apartment complex.
Trammell Crow principal David Neuman said on July 31 that the current concept plan is to construct three buildings on the 250 acres, depending on the market, and would be phased in over time. If this concept is realized, each building could possibly house up to three tenants, depending on their needs for space.
While it’s still too early to tell who would move into those facilities, Neuman stressed that Trammell Crow is working on “employment centers” that distribute or warehouse products people expect to get delivered in real time, like Amazon in North East.
“This very efficient environment really represents the new economy from our perspective,” Neuman said. “As we look at the new economy and the desire for population centers, and live, work, play environments, that’s exactly where employers want to relocate, consolidate or start a new operation.”
Moving east toward the Elk River, Jackson said he would like to develop another 18 acres as a possible marina or a condominium on a river walk, but said conversations are still ongoing. That land has some wetlands and lies in the state-protected Critical Area, so development there will be more challenging than inland.
Southside has been quiet for years after the housing market crash in 2008, despite persistent efforts from Alt to develop it into the largest sportsplex in North America throughout the years. The original property owners hoped to develop 2,500 homes there once upon a time.
But that picture began to change last spring when Alt and Cecil County Economic Development Director Chris Moyer met with Jackson to pitch a purely residential project. Jackson had some history in Cecil County as he developed 90 apartments along Belle Hill Road, but had no idea about the history of Southfields.
“Rob walked in with a set of plans and Chris had a big smile on his face,” Jackson said. “I was very candid with them. I said, ‘if you need the names of some builders, I’d be happy to do that. But I can’t help you.’ But their enthusiasm spilled over, and they were relentless.”
As the months passed, Jackson started to meet with Southside owners and later on with “Team Elkton” — Elkton Town Administrator Lewis George, Planning Director Jeanne Minner, Building and Zoning Director Chip Bromwell and Public Works Director Dan Handley.
Eventually, those discussions started to evolve into possibilities for south Elkton, including the vision of what town officials wanted to see in a long-dormant development. With a handshake agreement with Alt, Jackson struck a deal with Southside LLC and started talks with County Executive Alan McCarthy and Moyer and other development partners.
Jackson stressed that this project will triumph where all people work as one group.
“One piece of this does not work without the others,” Jackson said. “They all have to work in concert with each other ... There can’t be individual partners here. It’s got to be a team.”
McCarthy said that compared to other development partners that he dealt with who “blow smoke,” Jackson was the “real deal.” He celebrated the PUD as a new dawn for Elkton and Cecil County, setting a new tone for economic development here on out.
“The development of Southfield is a great example of how far we can go if the town, county and the state work together,” he said. “We can accomplish far more than each or any one of us could do by ourselves. The benefits and opportunities of this project that it brings to the town and to Cecil County are almost endless.”
The PUD also changes the game in terms of quality of life and workforce development, Moyer noted. Putting an industrial site in south Elkton rather than in Principio Business Park in North East strengthens the county’s ability to leverage interest with Delaware manufacturers and developers looking to expand its reach.
“We’ve already had some prospect meetings about this site already,” Moyer said.
These days, more developers are looking to build PUDs — nearby Middletown, Del., has several planned-use or master-planned communities in the works. In Cecil County, transportation has long been an issue when it comes to connecting people with retail or jobs.
Moyer hopes this project will set the tone for others like it, particularly in attracting residents in their 20s or 30s looking for a community.
“Whether it’s cornhole or a putting green, the pool, the clubhouse — those are the types of amenities that people expect that they haven’t been able to find it in Cecil County up to this point,” he said. “So this will help grow our residential population, particularly that young working class that want to make their mark.”
Jackson credited Elkton’s staff for welcoming him with open arms when it came to developing Southfields in a way he believed would make it a resounding success. But he is also making room in the Southfield vision to fulfill Alt’s long-deferred dream of a recreation complex.
“I was pessimistic about the idea of a regional recreational sports complex,” Jackson said. “I’m not sure how you can make all this work financially. There’s give and take in every relationship, and I think that this was important to Rob and to Elkton, and we’re going to make it work.”
Fifty acres has been set aside for a regional sports park along Route 213 behind the Southfield Park Shopping Center. Early designs would include baseball, soccer and lacrosse fields as well as common amenities.
A retail facility would feed into the regional park, in a parcel behind the Redner’s Warehouse Market. Possibilities include a fast-serve restaurant and a name-brand hotel to cater to it, Jackson said.
Alt and other Elkton officials have longed for parks in town out of the floodplain, as the Little League fields off Howard Street and Meadow Park off Delaware Avenue often fall victim to high tides from the Elk River. Town officials have looked into using Elk Landing as a park and successfully broke ground on a neighborhood recreation center this summer.
“If it’s high tide or raining in Pennsylvania, Elkton is going to flood. All these man-hours (our volunteers) put into the fields could be washed away without even raining,” Alt said.
In addition, the Southfields sportsplex would position Elkton to access the $13 billion annual sports tournament industry and bring thousands of families to town. From there, Elkton’s restaurants, hotels and downtown life can only reap the rewards.
While the county’s Calvert Regional Park has been steadily growing its tournaments over the past two years, its location has little to offer in terms of retail and hotels in the rural parts of the northern county.
McCarthy said that Alt’s plan was the right idea, not only from a sports tourism standpoint but also for quality of life. He also rejected the conccern that the Southfields sports complex would compete against Calvert Regional Park’s success.
“I think it’ll be an addendum to what we already have. The more you bring up the same thing, it attracts more people because if they can’t participate in one venue, they can in this one,” the county executive said. “More often, I see children go off to college and never come back. I would like to see more reasons for them to return to Cecil County.”
Jackson was attracted to Southfields for multiple reasons, namely that it was located in one of the county’s three Opportunity Zones designated through a federal program.
Opportunity Zones entice investors to infuse money into funds for prolonged periods of time to see tax breaks. Staying in an Opportunity Zone fund for at least five years could see 10% of the gain excluded from taxes, while 10 years results in tax-free gains.
“That is a big box to check as an asset,” Jackson said. “I may be preaching a bit here, but it’s a huge financial incentive with huge, institutional investors.”
The county’s proximity to Baltimore and Philadelphia was also “without a question” attractive to Jackson, as is the county’s strides in residential and job growth in the last few years. The PUD marks yet another victory for Cecil County, along with Amazon, Medline and Smithfield Foods in Principio Business Park, as well as Great Wolf Lodge in Perryville.
“The timing is everything when it comes to the economic environment. I wouldn’t be doing this in 2010,” Jackson said. “There has never been a better time to build quality, affordable housing, especially with such a shortage of housing. It’s a different world now, and it’s the right time to capitalize on it.”
Southfields also lies in a state-designated Enterprise Zone. Through that program, businesses can claim a 10-year credit on local property taxes for some property improvements, starting at 80% and hitting the floor to 30% in the final year. Enterprise Zone businesses also can claim one-year or three-year credits for wages paid to new employees in new positions, depending on certain factors.
Elkton officials have told the (Cecil County) Whig they are not willing to offer any more incentives than what’s currently on the table. The town has extended waivers for water and sewer connection fees as well as front-foot assessment costs until June 2022.
It remains to be seen whether Cecil County will offer tax incentives, as it’s done in the past to net large manufacturing projects with a mix of forgivable loans and tax reductions. Moyer said that no county incentives have been discussed to this point.