The sight of 73 new town homes rising from the rubble of vacant lots in Penn-North should be cause for celebration in a community that has not seen significant new investment in years.
It also should be a showpiece for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who is running for re-election this year, and would like to point to the project as a major initiative to provide home-ownership opportunities for low-income people.
But, instead of sharing accolades, the mayor and community leaders are locked in a dispute about just who is reaping the economic benefits of the $25 million Nehemiah Housing Development.
Community leaders claim their constituents are getting mere crumbs from the project, which was envisioned as providing an economic boost, job training -- as well as new housing -- to the neighborhoods where it is built.
Several minority contractors who have battled Schmoke in the ++ past are supporting that claim. They say the project's builder is doing little to involve local minority contractors or hire youth from the West Baltimore neighborhoods.
That claim is disputed by the city. A joint venture of Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse and Ryland Modular Homes in February won the $16.4 million contract to build and renovate 300 town homes in Penn-North and Sandtown-Winchester,
"We don't think that the contractors in our area are getting a fair shake," said Lillian Jackson, chairwoman of the Penn-North Association.
Jackson and others also say that only three of the 20 people receiving job training in conjunction with the project are from Penn-North or Sandtown-Winchester.
"Unemployment is extremely high in our neighborhood," said Vivian M. Pender, acting secretary of Penn-North. "The young people in our neighborhood want to work. But they need training and opportunities."
Schmoke said he generally is happy with progress on the Nehemiah project.
"I am satisfied personally that the developer is doing a good job" and that minority businesses are getting a fair share of the work, Schmoke said.
The city's Department of Housing and Community Development yesterday provided the Board of Estimates with a progress report on the project. It shows that subcontracting firms owned by minorities and women won 32 percent of the work done on the project since construction began in February.
Also, the city reports that 20 inner city residents have been hired work on the project, including 14 from the greater Penn-North and Sandtown-Winchester area. But that claim is contradicted by community leaders.
Schmoke has asked that the developers make sure the people hired as trainees indeed live in the community, as required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has provided much of the project's funding.
The report also says construction and marketing of the Nehemiah homes is proceeding smoothly. One hundred and fifty-five sales contracts are in place, the report says, and buyers are expected to begin moving into the Penn-North phase of the project next month.
But that report provided little comfort for Fran Scott, president of Scott Construction Co. and Arnold M. Jolivet, the head of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association.
Both urged the Board of Estimates to halt work on the Nehemiah construction until the developers bring more local workers into the project. Schmoke and other board members rejected that request.
A training program at the site, which had to be competitively bid federal regulations, was awarded to a joint venture of the Council for Equal Business Opportunity and the Home Builders Association of Maryland.
Scott said that he anticipated the Nehemiah project by launching a youth training project so that he would have the inside track on winning that contract. But his bid was far higher than that of the winner.
Scott also complained that he arranged for 50 alumni of his program to be trainees at the Nehemiah project and that none of them have been hired by the developer.
"If they are going to exclude us, we are not going to be nice little guys and sit back and say, 'Go ahead. Discriminate against us,' " said Jolivet, also a longtime critic of Schmoke's minority business policies.
However, Schmoke dismissed Scott as a sore loser.
"The real issue here, if you want to cut right through to it," is that Scott is not involved, the mayor said.