Day care move sparks dispute Leaders split on use of Lansdowne center

February 04, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The reason for closing Lansdowne's small library four years ago was simple -- to save $75,000 a year as Baltimore County government struggled with what was then a recession.

Now, despite a quarter-million-dollar, federally funded renovation and the building's rebirth in April 1995 as a community center, it stands half-empty. Utilities and maintenance have cost Baltimore County $20,000 since then.

And while the county executive's office and members of the community want to fill the space and bring the building back to full use, they disagree about what to fill it with.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger wants to act quickly to move 45 day care children there from a crowded church school building nearby.

Community activists had hoped to rent it to Michael A. Caggiano, the Baltimore Bandits owner who, until recently, wanted to build a $42 million venue in Lansdowne for his team. Now they want a new program that would benefit the area -- but oppose the day care plan.

Ruppersberger, however, is moving to alter the building at 500 Third Ave. for the day care proposal.

"We have to move quickly; we're wasting time right now," said the county executive, who has made helping older neighborhoods a priority and says the day care solution seems logical and necessary.

The seeds of the dispute stretch back to the library closing in February 1993, a small part of former Executive Roger B. Hayden's attempt to cut government expenses during the recession.

Hayden closed nine libraries, four senior centers and several other offices, laying off nearly 300 county employees. To help make amends to Lansdowne's outraged community activists, he agreed to lease the library building to them for $1 a year and help them get a federal grant to renovate it for community use.

The work was completed a few months after Ruppersberger took office. The center was filled with a literacy program, after-school and housing counseling programs run by Catholic Charities, a federally financed job training program, and Republican Del. Donald E. Murphy's district office.

Then Congress cut job training money, so Lansdowne's job program closed. Literacy Works left for a trailer outside nearby Lansdowne High School. Murphy moved his office.

For the past several years, county officials have been looking for possible tenants to fill the building.

One possibility arose in December 1995, when the county Fire Department cited St. Clement's School -- about half a mile from the library -- for having first-graders on the second floor of its building.

Fire regulations for schools say young children must have direct access to the outside. To get that access for the first-graders, the school would have to move about 45 day care children from two first-floor classrooms.

The Ruppersberger administration tried to help by getting a $390,000 federal grant to renovate the church's convent for day care use, but that plan fizzled because contract bids were too high.

Now, Ruppersberger wants to modify the community center space quickly for day care, build a playground, and move some of St. Clement's day care children there by spring.

But the Rev. Steven P. Girard, pastor of St. Clement's Roman Catholic Church, president of the Southwest Leadership Team, and board member of the nondenominational, nonprofit day care center, said the team wants new service programs in the center.

Girard also said that moving the children to the community center would cause problems for the popular day care program.

He said that splitting the 120-child day care center between two locations would force the hiring of a second director, raising the $85-a-week tuition. In addition, the children who move would no longer have access to the school's gym and library.

Girard and his supporters -- including Democratic county Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley -- want county help to buy a lot next to the church and school, at Second Avenue and Washington Street, raze the vacant house there and build a day care annex.

"We're looking at the quality of the [day care] program," said Girard, though he concedes that the move the county executive wants seems inevitable.

Ruppersberger, meanwhile, has set plans in motion to move day care children. Seeking a new grant for the proposed annex would take much longer, cost much more money and won't fill the community center's empty space, the executive argues.

"I applaud that [Lansdowne] group," Ruppersberger said, "but when it comes to the management of buildings, that's something that we do, and we do well, and we can't lose money. We can't let that [building] sit there."

Pub Date: 2/04/97

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