Jack Dwyer is sick of hearing about what's wrong with Baltimore.
The local businessman decided to channel his frustration with negative headlines by trying to change the narrative. Dwyer has donated $3 million to the National Aquarium to help advance a long-awaited project to build a waterfront campus between Piers 3 and 4 of the Inner Harbor featuring floating wetlands and terraces.
Dwyer, who owns Capital Funding Group and its subsidiary CFG Bank, has always been fond of the National Aquarium. He has been a member since 1996 and used to take his children there when they would get loud and rambunctious. He also credits the National Aquarium with helping spur a renaissance of Baltimore almost 40 years ago.
When Dwyer found out the nonprofit was looking for a main donor to push its waterfront campus plan forward he saw it as a way of repeating history.
"As far as I'm concerned they're the ones who started the turnaround of downtown," Dwyer said. "Baltimore has been taking way too many punches from a lot of different people so I decided I'm giving."
For Dwyer, the donation is part of his larger effort to support education and recreation in Baltimore. Dwyer's previous philanthropic contributions include a $3 million donation for the Mother Mary Lange Catholic School being built by the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
"[Education and recreation] helped to keep me out of trouble," Dwyer said. "That’s what kids need. Too often they have free time and that’s what gets them into trouble."
The National Aquarium has been working on its plan for for several years. It unveiled the vision for a makeover of the waterfront in 2016. The wetlands will provide a habitat for all sorts of animals and vegetation.
Aquarium CEO John Racanelli said the idea is to "bring back a piece of the Chesapeake Bay into the Inner Harbor." Terraces will be built so visitors can venture to the water's edge and see the wetlands up close.
"Early on we decided it should be free to everybody including residents, students and downtown workers," Racanelli said. "We feel this is a bit like the National Mall. What makes the Smithsonian such an asset is you have a beautiful mall and great museums around it. Having the floating wetlands creates a sense of place that doesn’t exist."
The aquarium has raised $11 million toward its $14 million goal for the project, Racanelli said. Other donations besides Dwyer's include a $2 million contribution by Whiting-Turner Construction Co.; $1 million by Exelon Corp. and its subsidiary Constellation Energy; and $1 million from philanthropist Mary Catherine Bunting.
The full project will encompass 14,000 square feet and be completed by fall 2022, Racanelli said. A 400-square-foot prototype wetland was installed in 2017. The aquarium has identified 30 species of animals there including blue crabs, mallards, night herons, eels, rockfish and even a muskrat.
Students in Baltimore City Public Schools are already benefitting from the wetlands. Racanelli said the aquarium operates daily programs in partnership with the school system so students can meet a requirement that they get a "meaningful watershed educational experience."
Last year more than 1,000 students from Baltimore City schools participated. Racanelli said the aquarium's goal is to serve more than 13,000 sixth graders across the entire state.
Dwyer hopes that as people walk by the wetlands, see the campus getting built and witness students participating in programs, that they will feel compelled to do something to help downtown Baltimore.
"We need some good news in Baltimore and hopefully this will be a stimulus," Dwyer said.
In particular, he would like to see someone be compelled to buy Harborplace out of receivership and redevelop it.
Harborplace was ordered into receivership by a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge on May 30 after years of growing vacancies, safety concerns and maintenance issues. Deutsche Bank Trust Co., which holds the Harborplace mortgage for AAC HP Realty LLC, an entity of Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., filed for the receivership.
"People are looking to see someone take a step forward," Dwyer said. "When step gets taken forward, other people will follow."