The 3,100-acre mill not only forged the steel that went into the Chesapeake Bay and Golden Gate bridges but anchored a local community, providing steady employment for generations of steelworkers. But just as U.S. manufacturing took a dive over the past few decades, so did Sparrows Point. After multiple changes in ownership, it shut down in 2012.
But the story doesn’t end there. This year, Redwood Capital Investments, in Hanover, Md., bought Sparrows Point, putting $48 million into an environmental cleanup of the site.
“It’s a telling tale for where the economy has shifted,” said Will Anderson, director of the Baltimore County Department of Economic and Workforce Development.
“Thousands of jobs will return because there was some patient capital there,” Mr. Anderson said of the private firm’s purchase of the property. “We’re not privy yet to the projects planning to bring in, but we know they will take advantage of the port, rails and the ability to do some modern manufacturing,” he added.
Behold the Baltimore of the future. Where traditional manufacturing once created jobs, responsibility for growth is increasingly shifting to investment firms and local university systems.
Mutual fund giants T. Rowe Price Group Inc. and Legg Mason Inc. have their home base just steps from the city’s Inner Harbor. And its premier investment bank, once known as Alex. Brown & Sons, lives on as Brown Advisory, a wealth management and private equity firm.
The numbers demonstrate how far Baltimore has come since the Great Recession. The unemployment rate, which reached 11.8% in 2010, was 8.8% at the end of October.
In terms of personal income, 16.4% of the city’s households earn more than $100,000 a year and 3.3% earn more than $200,000. The median home sale price is $109,900.
Financial advisers based in and around Baltimore describe it as a place that has never lost touch with its roots as a small-town, blue-collar community. Those who were born and raised here tend to stay.
“It’s an old-school town where people tend to be very loyal to the area,” said Timothy W. Chase, managing partner at the wealth management firm WMS Partners. “D.C. is just down the road but is a very different culture, more transient.”
Mr. Chase is a graduate of Towson University, whose campus is 20 minutes from Baltimore. WMS has relocated just once in its 22 years in business — moving the shop five blocks away.
Baltimore still attracts wealthy clients. Mr. Chase said his firm’s average client has about $10 million in assets, and most of those clients are in the area.
Lyle K. Benson, a Baltimore native and founder of the financial advisory firm L.K. Benson & Co., puts clients into four basic categories: people who created wealth from selling a closely held business; corporate executives, whom he called a “dying breed in Baltimore”; individual millionaires; and those who have inherited wealth.
HOTBED OF PRIVATE EQUITY
There are other potential sources of wealth, though, according to Mr. Benson.
“While we’ve lost a lot of the manufacturing core, Baltimore is a hotbed for private equity,” he said.
For instance, UM Ventures, a joint venture of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and the University of Maryland, College Park, recently announced that it had made its first equity investment: a startup that makes medical devices.
Meanwhile, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is flexing its technology muscles with a cyberincubator program, a nursery for young cybersecurity and IT-based businesses.
Notably, Baltimore is also home to some very significant federal employers: The Social Security Administration and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid are both headquartered there. Local advisers report that public employees account for a sizable slice of their clientele.
The area does come with its share of planning obstacles, though. Drew Tignanelli, president of a financial advisory firm called Financial Consulate in nearby Hunt Valley, Md., points to taxes as an issue for his retired clients.
“I like to joke that in Maryland, the minute a client retires, 50% of them shoot over to Delaware or to Florida,” he said. “Maryland is an extremely inhospitable place to retire.”
The state estate tax exemption in Maryland, which is $1.5 million for 2015, will eventually rise to match the federal level ($5.43 million in 2015), but that won’t happen until 2019.
“I have a client who saved himself and his kids $2 million in income and estate taxes by moving to Florida from Maryland,” Mr. Tignanelli said.
The future is brighter for the industry overall when it comes to minting new financial advisers in the area. Mr. Tignanelli and Mr. Chase rely on local schools as a source of new talent.
Mr. Chase is helping Towson University create a financial planning program “along the lines of Virginia Tech and Texas Tech,” he said.