Under Armour Changes Attitudes in Locust Point

When Under Armour first opened in Baltimore in 1999, the sports apparel company joined a Locust Point community that has long been a home for industry. But not this type of industry.

Under Armour, whose UA logo marks uniforms and athletic apparel distributed across the globe, moved into a scrubbed brick complex that sits next to grittier old port operations, which were the traditional Locust Point employers.

The Under Armour headquarters is not a factory but an office campus. Now, about 1,250 people come to work at Under Armour on Key Highway every day, a huge workday population increase for a neighborhood of about 2,100 people.

The company wants to hire 500 more workers over the next 10 years, which means more traffic, less parking -- and, inevitably, suspicion from Locust Point residents.

So Under Armour has made one man the company’s face in Locust Point: Shawn King.

“This campus is right in the middle of Locust Point,” King, a Rockville native, said. “We have houses and neighbors and a community that are basically intertwined with us around the campus. So you really don’t have a choice but to work with the community.”

This is not what King thought he would be doing when he left a Minneapolis-based retail design consulting firm in 2007 to take a job with Under Armour as a retail designer.

In that job, King was in charge of Under Armour’s Shop in Shop design, a “store-within- a-store concept,” at retail stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods or Sports Authority.

But last year, Under Armour decided to make him the director of campus development and design. They also made him the company’s official liaison to the community.

Now King, 49, with a degree from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, goes to monthly civic association meetings. He gives residents his e-mail address. He explains his company’s plans. He listens to complaints — all while making a 45-minute commute to Locust Point from Bel Air, where he lives with his wife and three children.

King says he is no politician. So, when he took on the responsibility of being Under Armour’s quasi-public relations officer to the community, he encountered some rough patches at first.

“It was a bit overwhelming to begin with, because what you’re trying to do is find your voice with (the community) while they’re not necessarily trusting you from the beginning,” King said.

Trust in Under Armour has never been easy for some Locust Point residents.

Over the span of a decade, Under Armour’s headquarters has grown from a one-level, one-story building into a six-building complex covering half a million square feet that still wants to expand deeper into the small confines of Locust Point.

“From my perspective, the very first instinct the community had about Under Armour was that it was up to no good,” said Terry Hickey, the Locust Point Civic Association president.

“The mentality was, ‘They are trying to take us over.’ Now, I think people have lost an alertness to Under Armour. The official community stance is that they are willing to cooperate,” Hickey said.

Over the last few decades, national corporate headquarters have disappeared from Baltimore, which makes Under Armour all the more visible.

Its logo is seen all over the city. Drivers along Interstate 95 see the Under Armour billboard next to the fierce face of the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis, over the phrase “Welcome To Baltimore.”

Baltimore City Councilman William H. Cole IV, who used to live in Locust Point, said Under Armour provides all of Baltimore with a sense of pride in addition to jobs. “It is important for Under Armour to be here. As they continue to grow, it is important that they stay here,” Cole said.

King believes the neighborhood now is invested in the company.

“I feel like it’s important to have visibility and recognition within the community to show that you are interested in the community and that you are looking for a relationship.”

At a recent Locust Point Civic Association meeting, community members heard from Alfred H. Foxx Jr., the city’s director of public works, who was there to field impatient questions about street paving. He was peppered with complaints from residents tired of torn-up pavement.

The next speaker was King, who rose to show the group a sketch of Under Armour’s new visitor center, planned to open in the neighborhood next year.

King was greeted with applause. He heard no complaints. In fact, one resident asked King, to laughter, if Under Armour could buy the city’s Department of Public Works and make it more efficient.

“Shawn is very good at his job and is extremely active in speaking with the community association. He in particular is very in tune with the community and people get to know him,” Hickey said.

King is trying to blend his day-to-day design responsibilities at Under Armour with visibility in the neighborhood.

“You have to be honest, friendly, and truthful in the way that you approach a situation, and a fairly decent negotiator -- because the asks are sometimes huge. And sometimes it’s just a little ask, but you still have to figure out what it is that (the community) is actually asking from you,” King said.

“There is always going to be the challenge to have these roles aligned, but they may not,” King added.

“So what you want to do is work the problem, find the solution. And I think as long as you approach it from that perspective, then it’s really about understanding where the differences lie between what the community wants and what Under Armour needs to do,” he said.

Under Armour recently won revisions to its planned unit development (PUD), a set of rules that govern its land use, and detailed its expansion for the next five to seven years. The company plans to build an 80,000-square-foot office building along with an 800-space parking garage.

King said this process took about six months of negotiating with the Locust Point Civic Association, as required by the city of Baltimore. The residents were concerned about issues including traffic, walking routes, and heights of any new buildings.

King said the expansion will not affect community residents’ views of the waterfront.

“We were very thoughtful in the way we approached adding square footage to the campus,” considering how precious the waterfront is to the community.

This fall, the city approved $35 million that will include funds for improving roads, landscaping and parks around the expanded Under Armour campus.

“We have had great growth since the inception of this company, but nobody can control what the economy does in the future,” King said. “The biggest thing moving forward is how we can sustain the progress we have made,” he said.

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