Building boom by churches praised Dozens of projects expected to boost city's depressed areas

October 21, 1997|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

Baltimore churches are involved in a building boom that could be a boost to some of the city's most depressed areas.

From Rosemont on the west side to East Baltimore, dozens of churches are completing or planning restoration or construction of schools, child care centers and community centers.

The projects range from renovations of a few vacant houses by small churches to a $30 million project on the drawing board at the United Baptist Missionary Convention of Maryland, a group of 200 churches in the state.

Much of the development is in the city's most run-down areas, places shunned by most for-profit developers.

"I have a lot of church leaders coming to me with development projects," said Daniel P. Henson III, the city housing commissioner. "I tell them, if their deals have merit, meet the community's needs and are ready to go, they'll get preference" for community development block grant money.

Said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke: "These churches have decided to stay and work with us in solving some of these social problems.

"Their decision to stay in the city brings about stability and improvement."

Last week, at the Baltimore Convention Center, church leaders gathered for a conference on church-based community development sponsored by the Maryland office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Associated Black Charities -- an organization, funded in large part by the United Way, that funnels support to other agencies.

About 500 people representing more than 100 religious institutions attended workshops at which experts talked about financing, creating partnerships with for-profit organizations and other development-related matters.

"A lot of business left the city, but the churches have stayed, and now they're saying, 'We'll improve on what surrounds us,' " said Hilda Aston, president of Diamond Development, a Baltimore company overseeing several church projects.

Also giving technical advice was Derrick A. Burnett, who with three partners started Architectural Environments Inc. two years ago in Baltimore, at least in part because of the boom in church-related construction.

Church business

"We feel like there is enough business just in the church community to sustain our company for years to come," Burnett said.

The conference was inspired in part by HUD Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo's visit to Baltimore in May, during which he heard from many church leaders seeking technical advice and money for such projects. Cuomo promised that HUD would work closely with churches, providing technical advice and support, to redevelop the inner city.

Support for the movement appears to be widespread, but some say redevelopment should not be part of a church's mission.

Herman L. Saunders of Herm Saunders Realty wants the city to get more real estate agents involved in redeveloping the inner city, "people who have the necessary expertise."

Henson counters that churches have access to many experts, including himself, and that the city will review all church plans.

"I look at churches as part of a growing group of developers that will make the city look drastically different in the future," Henson said.

Among the reasons for the building boom are welfare reform -- redevelopment and the resulting commercial enterprises could provide jobs for people getting off welfare; a new breed of church leaders, who are not intimidated by the complexities of development and are eager to deal with social problems; and the decay that has marred some sections of the city, which church leaders say threatens the churches' future.

Nehemiah program

A model for the churches is the much-publicized Nehemiah housing program, which has collected $2.2 million in pledges that leveraged millions more in federal, state and city dollars to renovate houses, several ministers said.

Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, a church-based community group, initially asked churches for money for the project in 1986.

The religious leaders vowed to rebuild the city, in the way the Old Testament prophet Nehemiah urged for Jerusalem.

With the Enterprise Foundation as developer, 300 houses have been built, 150 more are planned and 150 are to be renovated under Nehemiah.

Nehemiah began in the impoverished neighborhoods of Sandtown-Winchester and Penn North in West Baltimore and has spread to East Baltimore.

The development boom comes at a time when government money for such projects is increasingly hard to obtain, but churches are finding ways to tap the funds that exist and to build partnerships with private developers.

For example, Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, which has extensive plans for revitalizing Reservoir Hill, is a partner with private developers Monte Greenbaum and Louis Greenfeld in renovating the 10-story Marlborough apartment house, which overlooks Eutaw Place, into housing for low-income elderly people.

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