Loan to aid CPR project just another pipe dream

September 14, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

JOE WASSIL wants Baltimore's empowerment zone officials to show a little heart. Of hearts, he knows plenty. Wassil teaches cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and he's developed a product for safe CPR. But he needs some financial help to keep his business alive. The empowerment zone folks say, sorry, he doesn't quite qualify. Wassil's angry. You might even say, he's smoking.

A few weeks ago, he noticed a story in this newspaper about the Empowerment Zone Program, which is designed to spend $100 million in federal money to help rejuvenate Baltimore.The story was about a bar in Fells Point. Joe Wassil lives and works in Fells Point. The bar in question, Max's on Broadway, wanted a loan to help pay for a cigar smoking lounge. They got $100,000. Joe Wassil, who wants to save hearts, also applied for a loan. He got nothing.

"Am I the only one who's questioning this spending?" Wassil, 50, was asking last week.

Not quite.

Empowerment zone guidelines say specifically that liquor stores are ineligible for loans. Those defending the $100,000 loan have said such a ban doesn't apply to Max's, because the establishment also serves food and sells cigars.

The Empowerment Zone Program is designed to help blighted and decaying urban areas. Many have asked: How does a cigar smoking lounge help a community? The Empowerment Zone Program is also designed to help increase employment. The cigar lounge is part of an expansion of Max's. It has created six new jobs.

With all due respect for Max's, which lends good-time cheer to Fells Point, Joe Wassil's not just looking to make a living. His living is saving lives. Sometimes, lives endangered bysmoking.

He grew up in Fells Point and still lives in a Bethel Street rowhouse, where his business is located. He teaches all levels of American Heart Association CPR and National Safety Council first aid. He markets infection-control products, such as CPR masks and latex gloves, to be used in the safe performance of CPR and first aid.

Also, he's developed a cabinet. The cabinet attaches to a wall and dispenses CPR masks, latex gloves and a hand cleaner -- and also has an emergency alarm system, powered by battery, which goes off when the seal on the cabinet door is broken. It's designed to alert people that someone's in trouble. Wassil's got a U.S. patent on it.

"The problem," he says, "is that equipment like this simply isn't available in public areas. It isn't available anywhere. Why is it important? In 50 percent of heart attack cases, people vomit. If CPR is administered, you sometimes have vomiting. This increases the likelihood of infectious disease. With proper equipment, the likelihood of exposure is eliminated or minimized."

He wants to put this cabinet into establishments around the area -- in fact, he says, he's already had some out-of-town success, including 42 cabinets sold to a New York investment firm -- but he needs financing. That's why he went to the empowerment zone folks. Wassil's had his business going for several years now, but he hasn't had the money for production or marketing. In fact, he says he's just about broke.

"That's the problem," says Michael Preston, spokesman for Empower Baltimore Management Corp. "Personal credit. We talked with Joe about an 80-20 loan, which is designed to help people who are undercapitalized. We put up 20 percent, and hope that this makes a lending institution comfortable enough to put up the other 80 percent.

"It's not that Joe's business wouldn't help the community," Preston adds. "It's not that his thing isn't viable. Marketing is going to be the key. But, before he could get financing from us, he's got to develop a three-year business plan. He's got to show profitability, which he hasn't shown."

This, of course, is Wassil's point. If he had money, he wouldn't need somebody else's. If he had an overpowering business plan, he wouldn't need assistance from empowerment zone officials. Wassil admits business and marketing aren't his strong suits. He's a Vietnam-era veteran who was a diver for the U.S. Navy. He's taught English to foreign students. When he met with empowerment officials two weeks ago to tell them about his business, he didn't try to hide his financial troubles. It's the very reason he needed their help.

"It seems to me," he says, "that I've got something here that not only helps me, but it's clearly in the public interest. And that's what the empowerment program's supposed to be about. It's not about loans so people can smoke cigars."

Of the loan to Max's, Michael Preston says, "People have criticized it. But Max's is a profitable business. The cigar shop is only a facet of what they do."

That's true. They also sell alcohol.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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