City switch stuns community groups

February 25, 1994|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Sun Staff Writer

A year ago, the city took a novel approach to a neighborhood problem and paid organizers $150,000 to form two new community groups in the troubled Park Heights neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore.

But when the groups finally incorporated and asked for start-up money, the city turned them away.

On Tuesday, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said he wants to revitalize Park Heights but has no interest in funding the new groups because government agencies, including his Department of Housing and Community Development, can perform the same function the neighborhood groups would provide.

"I'm not going to give up my job," he said.

Of the city's longtime practice of funding community groups to oversee neighborhood development, he said, "We've done that. It doesn't work."

Park Heights community leaders are perplexed by Mr. Henson's decision.

"It's crazy to me," said Linwood Cole, who helped form the Park Heights Renaissance Economic Development Project -- a group that wants to start a job bank for the unemployed and renovate vacant buildings.

"Why would they go out there and tell us to [organize] and then not fund us?" he said.

The $150,000 organization grant was made under the administration of former Housing Commissioner Robert W. Hearn, whom Mr. Henson succeeded last year.

After three Park Heights community groups collapsed over the last several years, the city took the unusual step last year of hiring the Development Training Institute, a national nonprofit corporation headquartered in Baltimore.

The institute's organizers met with neighborhood residents over several months to lay the groundwork for new community groups.

Recently, the new groups, the Park Heights Renaissance Community Corporation and the Development Project, asked the city for $209,000 to set up offices with small staffs and to start a job bank to find work for the unemployed, said Mr. Cole.

The new groups replaced organizations that were funded by the city for many years before they disbanded.

Mr. Henson said his housing department is already working on plans to redevelop two sites along Park Heights Avenue and is seeking to expand a state-funded job bank that operates out of Mondawmin Mall.

He also said the city's new human services division can take care of social programs that the new community organization wants to start.

"Why rebuild the wheel?" he said of services the city can provide.

Some areas of Park Heights -- the city's largest urban renewal area -- are afflicted by drug-related crime, unemployment and vacant houses.

Over the last several years, the community has lost three institutions -- the Park Heights Community Corporation, the Park Heights Development Corporation and the Park Heights Street Academy -- all created to revive the neighborhood.

Larry Leazer, the interim president of the Park Heights Renaissance Community Corporation, said he can't understand why the city spent $150,000 to help organize the two new groups without giving them money to operate.

"Why pay so much money to get the residents excited and mobilized? Now, it's like a kick in the teeth," he said.

James Howard Young, another leader who is on the community corporation's advisory board, said, "It's disheartening to me to put in all that time, all that effort and to have the door slammed in your face."

"We are stagnant at this point because there's nobody to even print fliers up," he said, noting that the group has been unable to find office space in the Park Heights multipurpose center.

Mr. Young said he hopes to talk to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in the next few weeks to appeal Mr. Henson's decision.

City records indicate that about $600,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant money was set aside for the new Park Heights community groups. That money is no longer available, Mr. Henson conceded.

Asked about the money, Mr. Henson said, "I spent it someplace else -- on projects ready to go." He declined to provide details.

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