The (New) Company Town
Alongside the recent flood of news about the Baltimore Uprising, a trickle of stories has been appearing about Kevin Plank, co-founder and CEO of Under Armour, and his plans for Port Covington. A formerly industrial part of southwest Baltimore, including prime waterfront frontage, he faced little opposition and no legacy residents as he amassed 120 acres for $90 million. The acquisition has been done under the auspices of Sagamore Development, a UA-funded company that will also be spearheading construction on the new campus. Plank's vision includes new offices, a whiskey distillery, a makerspace, housing, horse stables, and possibly a new track for the Preakness.
The project has glided along on a cushion of goodwill from politicians and business leaders, eager to see UA's job and tax footprint expand in the city. In general, press coverage has not been terribly critical, painting Plank as a Bloomberg-esque figure who is a forward-looking, tech-savvy, beneficent mogul looking to better Baltimore. In reality, he is hewing to a very old script, one with a tangled history of paternalism, racism, labor unrest, and the fragility of good intentions.
America has a long association with company towns. In popular memory, films, and books, they are typically cluster of grim frame shacks huddled under the shadow of massive mine elevators, populated by laborers working long hours for company scrip. A list of such towns on Wikipedia are in predominately rural locations centered around extractive industries like timbering, coal mining, and quarrying. However, urban locations arose as well, as proto-corporations acquired parcels right outside city limits and built out worker housing. My apartment, in an 1850s cotton mill alongside the Jones Falls, is surrounded by old stone duplexes and brick rowhomes built as company-owned worker housing .
The archetypal company town is Pullman, Illinois, originally established on 4,000 acres just outside the city line of Chicago in 1880 to manufacture luxury rail cars. Worker housing included indoor plumbing and rented for a reasonable $2 a month. Residents, and factory employees were overwhelmingly white, part of Pullman's paternalistic vision for a "pure", happy community, free from the temptations of alcohol, gambling, and general vice found a few miles to the north. The whole experiment crashed in the nationwide recession of 1894, when sagging sales forced Pullman to cut wages (but not rent on company housing). Factory workers went on strike, and the all-black porter's association also walked out. George Pullman died in 1897, and his company was eventually ruined by the Great Depression and the general decline of rail travel. The town was eventually subsumed by the City of Chicago. The last rail car rolled off the line in 1981.
The Pullman story played out all over America and the world -- Essen, Germany; Saltaire, England; and Henry Ford's legendary Fordlandia, in Brazil. These urban follies are the design outcome of a particular sort of corporatist logic, where inefficiencies, including some measure of human free will, are rooted out in pursuit of profit. It all works wonderfully, until it doesn't; the inevitable collapse of the single patron who keeps the whole thing afloat turns model communities into shells of their former selves, searching for something to fill the economic holes. Historically, these experiments have been around extraction or manufacturing, built on the engine of mass employment. Most of these sputtered out by the Great Depression, broken by general economic circumstances and successful labor organizing.
The new company towns, however, are a different animal. Called campuses, they are most often associated with the tech giants of the west coast -- Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon. Under Armour falls into this category. Instead of the stick -- segregation, prohibition of alcohol, control of goods and services, division of housing by company rank -- these new towns use the carrot, luring modern knowledge workers with unheard-of perks. Google employees get free transportation on private buses to their campus; once there, everything from lunch to dry cleaning to daycare is provided for free. On top of this, some companies are developing housing to keep employees close to corporate home. Despite the veneer of cheeriness, the paternalism is still there, designed to make the company the irreplaceable center of employee's lives.
I don't know how Port Covington is going to turn out, and I am always happy to see more warm bodies in the city and a larger tax base. Under Armour will do at least a little bit to offset the long-term problems Baltimore has been saddled with as its longtime economic drivers, steel and textiles, have declined. And, working in a largely industrial area, Plank and company aren't displacing large volumes of residents.
However, the concentration of land, money, and power are always a dangerous thing. While Plank has verbally committed to the city in interview after interview, there's no guarantee he won't pull up stakes if he runs into political headwinds, an unfavorable tax structure, or flagging sales. Let's just hope his intentions stay as pure as his whiskey, due to start rolling off the bottling lines next year.