Home for elderly founders on debt

February 02, 1992|By Ann LoLordo

They wanted to build a nursing home for West Baltimore's poor.

The owners had a 100-year-old history of caring for the elderly and infirm. Everyone supported the idea. Politicians pledged nearly $6 million in public funds. Methodist churches in Maryland donated $1.3 million from their collection baskets. Widows and senior citizens offered bake-sale receipts.

The N. M. Carroll Health Care Facility was to be the first community-based, minority-owned and operated nursing home in West Baltimore.

Not only would it relieve a nursing home bed shortage in the city and provide essential care for 140 of Baltimore's neediest, it would also deliver 120 jobs with a $2.1 million payroll to an impoverished neighborhood.

The reality, however, of the N. M. Carroll project is this:

A health care facility that should have been completed in 13 months sits empty on a ragged, overgrown plot at Monroe and Gilmor streets.

The windows of the building are boarded up or broken. A blue sign out front reads: "Securing Tomorrow Today."

The facility, for which Methodist churches began collecting money more than 25 years ago, outspent its budget of $7.3 million. While the state and federal governments helped finance the nursing home, the city is out $3.4 million because of the project's troubles.

The owner of the project -- a community, non-profit corporation associated with the successful N. M. Carroll Manor senior citizens complex -- needs yet another $1.2 million to finish the debt-ridden project. Elderly neighbors -- some died waiting for the nursing home to open -- are still hoping N. M. Carroll will care for them when they no longer can care for themselves.

Nubra W. Floyd, a 91-year-old widow who lives at the N. M. Carroll Manor, has donated "a sizable" sum of money to the nursing home project. And she intends to spend her last days there "if I live until they are completed."

So what went wrong? What happened to this project with political, financial and community support that state and city officials and neighborhood leaders insisted was urgently needed -- and still is?

"It's a classic case of a group getting into a business they were unfamiliar with, and these economic times are very unforgiving," said Ed Thomas, president of Asbury Methodist Village, a health care complex in Gaithersburg that considered taking over the troubled project.

N. M. Carroll has done a "super job" of providing housing for the elderly at its North Arlington Avenue complex, Mr. Thomas said. But he added, "When you go into a new business and you don't know it, sometimes you make mistakes. Today, you make one or two mistakes and you can be gone."

Costs keep rising

Problems have plagued the nursing home ever since the architects sketched the initial design more than six years ago. The three-story, L-shaped complex designed by an Oxon Hill firm would have cost more money to build than N. M. Carroll anticipated.

"We were determined not to go over our head," said Lawrence C. Custis, an N. M. Carroll board member and retired state employee. "We knew what we could afford. We were talking about a non-profit home, [to] bring it in in a reasonable amount of money."

The nursing home had to be redesigned. But when the project was rebid, the total cost escalated from $4.5 million to $7.2 million. The new amount exceeded what the state had approved for the project. So in August 1987, N. M. Carroll returned to the state Health Resources Planning Commission.

In part, N. M. Carroll officials argued, the original cost of the project had been underestimated. But they acknowledged other problems as well.

"First, the architect chosen was not experienced in Maryland health care facilities, and many of the design changes have resulted from the need to comply with Maryland requirements," James Ethridge, president of the proposed facility, wrote to the commission.

And, despite $1.5 million in state grants, $736,346 in federal funds and $1.3 million in church and community donations, "local banks have twice expressed last-minute reluctance to finance a minority-run facility in a low-income neighborhood," Mr. Ethridge said in his letter.

N. M. Carroll then turned to the city of Baltimore to shore up the project. On Aug. 12, 1987, the day before the facility's state authorization was due to expire, the city agreed to guarantee a $3.2 million revenue bond that would finance construction of the nursing home.

The facility broke ground a little more than a year later. During construction, the state's health-planning architect and others raised concerns about the design -- inadequate multipurpose rooms to accommodate 139 patients, too few bathrooms to serve 16 patients in an adult day-care program, a kitchen lacking the minimum space requirements for the patients, and misplaced nursing stations.

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