Battle over refugee center

Retail-space location may hamper renewal, associations say

July 12, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Three weeks after a center to help refugees opened on Eastern Avenue, merchants are trying to dislodge the facility from Highlandtown's retail strip to make room for a business.

The area's merchant and community associations say the Baltimore Resettlement Center's placement in a 3,000-square-foot storefront at 3516 Eastern Ave. could hamper a two-year effort to build a vibrant retail district. The center is in a prime retail location -- once home to a Pic-N-Pay shoe store -- that should be reserved for another store, they say.

"It makes more sense if you are going to have a refugee center to have it as part of the community and not in the business center," said James Ward Morrow, vice president of Highlandtown Community Association.

"We want stuff in our back yard, but we want it to be commercial activity and positive," said Morrow, who is on leave from his job as an assistant state's attorney to run for a 1st District City Council seat this year.

Since the center opened last month, it has helped about 40 immigrants, mostly from countries in Africa and the Balkans. A joint project between public and private agencies, the center is the city's headquarters for immigrants and refugees looking for housing and medical and financial help.

"We chose Highlandtown because it has a history of immigration and we thought it would be a place that would welcome immigrants," said Lynn Heller, the center's project coordinator.

Arguments called `baloney'

Democratic City Councilman John L. Cain, one of the 1st District's three representatives, called the arguments for relocating the center "baloney."

"I cannot imagine why anyone would feel threatened by a few families that have to leave their countries for political reasons," Cain said. "They are there and should stay there and not be shoved off to a second floor someplace or around the corner."

Members of the coalition running the center are the Maryland Office for New Americans, the city Department of Social Services, the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, Immigration and Refugee Services of America, the International Rescue Committee and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.

Some merchants say they aren't upset with the center's location -- especially given the vacant storefronts with "For Rent" signs along the avenue.

"We need people to come in here and not leave," said Eric Gluszcz, owner of the Spartan Pizzeria, near the center in the 3600 block of Eastern Ave.

Highlandtown Community Association and Highlandtown Merchants Association have enlisted the help of state Sen. Perry Sfikas, a Democrat who represents the area. Sfikas told center officials Tuesday evening that he would try to secure state and federal money for them, if they move to a different location in East Baltimore.

Strictly business

Many of the immigrants are residing in the area and some Highlandtown residents are concerned they will overwhelm schools and social services in the area. Despite the concerns, Highlandtown community leaders say their attempts to move the center are based on business concerns, not xenophobia.

The dispute stems from the center's failure to obtain a city occupancy permit before opening -- and for failing to follow city policies governing businesses that move into Highlandtown.

Highlandtown's Design Review Committee, formed by the city and neighborhood merchants to keep pawnshops and nonretail offices from gobbling space on Eastern Avenue, never saw the plans for the center. Yet the committee is charged with reviewing all business development plans and making recommendations to the city's business assistance coordinators, who issue occupancy permits.

The center has since applied for the occupancy permit with the city Department of Housing and Community Development.

"If they would have come through the process we may have found a place that was happy to everyone. Now it's a hard decision," said Michael E. Johnson, the housing department's Eastern District business assistance coordinator who is responsible for issuing occupancy permits.

Heller, the center's project coordinator, said the center would likely move if Sfikas fulfills his pledge to find government money to pay for recently completed renovations to the Eastern Avenue site and relocation expenses, estimated to be about $50,000.

A move would also hinge upon the center's sponsoring agencies agreeing to the plan -- and NationsBank, which represents the estate that owns the property, allowing the center out of its lease.

"I am convinced that if we moved, the community would do everything they can to welcome the refugees, and I believe them," Heller said. "I do not want to stay here if that means the community does not want our refugees because they have already been through hell five times over."

Highlandtown merchants believe the storefront is a crucial element of a multiyear effort to increase development in Highland- town. They hope to build on a recent string of successes, including the planned renovation of the Patterson Theater on Eastern Avenue and the reopening of the Grand Theater on South Conkling Street.

"This is the one time we have to free that address" for future retail growth, said Richard W. Sandza, publisher of the Baltimore Guide newspapers and president of the Highlandtown Merchants Association.

The Pic-N-Pay property was vacant for six months before the resettlement center moved there. Sandza and NationsBank officials said no retail businesses have expressed interest in moving to the location.

That's why Dave Dietzen, manager of Consolidated Pawn Brokers at Eastern Avenue and South Conkling Street, has no problem with the center's storefront location.

"Its better than being boarded up," he said.

Pub Date: 7/12/99

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