True believer leads revival in city Developer rebuilds areas one street corner at a time

November 14, 1995|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,SUN STAFF

Jerry Lymas hasn't given up on Baltimore, not even on the city street corners that evoke the most fear among outsiders.

Mr. Lymas is a true believer that decaying city neighborhoods will come back to life. And he believes churches must lead the revival. He's counting on it.

In his self-appointed mission he calls "50 Churches & 50 Corners," Mr. Lymas hopes to beautify Baltimore's communities by replacing eyesores at Baltimore's blighted intersections with dozens of new and renovated buildings.

"I think the city is very viable and has a very bright future," said Mr. Lymas, founder of Justin Development Co. "If 50 churches would take ownership of corners near them, that would have a significant impact on Baltimore City."

His company is finishing work on a $2.9 million Head Start Center at Druid Hill Avenue and Dolphin Street, being built with money from neighboring Union Baptist Church and state bonds.

Completed are the $2 million renovation of a building at Madison Avenue and Preston Street that serves as the headquarters of the United Baptist Missionary Convention and the $700,000 rehabilitation of a six-unit apartment building at Walbrook Avenue and Rosedale Street.

Other projects in the works are a strip shopping center at Bell Avenue and Garrison Boulevard and a school and community building on Poplar Grove Street.

All are the result of partnerships between Justin and city churches that have become part of Mr. Lymas' goal to persuade 50 churches to combine their money with private or public funds to improve blighted corners near them.

Mr. Lymas, 42, went into business in 1983, developing the Harvey Johnson Towers complex for the elderly in West Baltimore. A native of Union, S.C., he is an alumnus of Morgan State University and the University of South Carolina law school.

He said that while working for six years as a special assistant to former U.S. Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, a Baltimore Democrat, he was amazed at how nonprofit groups rejuvenated communities through neighborhood development projects.

"You could see blight on a corner, and 12 months later you could see an attractive structure," he said while sitting in his modest office at North and Hilton avenues in a building that once was the parsonage of John Wesley United Methodist Church.

Mr. Lymas said the idea to launch 50 Churches & 50 Corners sprang from a conversation with his pastor, the Rev. Vernon Dobson of Union Baptist.

Despite the name, he doesn't have 50 churches on board yet. He said he's talked to leaders of about 25 churches so far, encouraging them to use their resources and public funding to help rebuild street corners.

Bishop Keith G. Allen, pastor of Rehoboth Church of God, said he is working with Justin Development while trying to obtain funding to renovate a fire-damaged building on Poplar Grove for a school and community center. He projected the cost at more than $3 million.

"It's needed in the community," said Bishop Allen, who noted that the church's neighborhood has been troubled by drug-dealing, prostitution and other crimes. He said he agreed that churches can be catalysts for revitalization.

"Traditionally, churches have been the stabilizing factor in the community, especially the black community," he said. "In the last few years there has been a reversal of that. I think [50 Churches & 50 Corners] can be a tremendous asset, not only to the appearance of our communities, but we may be able to save some of our youths."

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