A deteriorating building, thousands of dollars in delinquent bills and a cut in funding from city and United Way officials is forcing the Lafayette Square Community Center to close its doors Thursday.
The center has been an institution in West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester community, one of the city's most economically depressed areas. It opened nearly 50 years ago in a dilapidated building at the corner of Lanvale Street and Fremont Avenue.
Later, Vernon Roy Sheffey, the center's director from 1965 to 1989, ran a fund-raising campaign that led to a new, $1.5 million, 30,000-square-foot facility which opened at the corner of Lafayette Avenue and Gilmor Street in 1974.
Now the center is less than a week from closing. No more tutoring kids, counseling young mothers, teaching GED classes, assisting the elderly or providing day care.
Executive Director Rosalind Griffin said it saddens her that more than 100 children and adults will miss out on the center's services. She said she inherited a myriad of prob- lems when she became director in September 1998, after Gloria Ricks left the post.
"When I came, the organization had considerable debt," Griffin said yesterday, sitting in a center that was unusually quiet. "Therefore, I could not totally fund the programming because I had to use some of the income just to keep the doors open. The gas bill was behind. We had cutoff notices. We were somewhere around $10,000 in arrears."
The center also owed about $10,000 to Watkins Security, Griffin said. It was behind on telephone bills to both Bell-Atlantic and AT&T. And it had a leaky roof, which allowed water to flow down the walls and ruin the carpet.
Griffin estimated it would cost about $300,000 to properly renovate the building.
Making matters worse, United Way drastically reduced its allocation to the center last year.
United Way gave the center just under $200,000 for fiscal 1998, which ended June 30 of last year, said Penny Anderson, a vice president with United Way of Central Maryland. But the nonprofit agency provided no funding in fiscal 1999, in part because of a lack of fiscal accountability, she said.
In April, Griffin requested $93,483 from United Way, to be used from March 2000 through June 2001. She was notified this month that the organization would get less than half that, or $45,000, Anderson said.
Anderson, who oversees community building and investment for United Way, said the agency didn't fund the Lafayette day care center "because it hadn't been recertified or relicensed." She said volunteers who make funding decisions thought Lafayette Square was improving and had made positive changes. "I regret the fact that they're closing," she said. "I'm very sorry that the community will lose those resources."
Griffin applied for a $260,000 HUD block grant in March -- which would have been administered through the city -- but was turned down.
Griffin, who has been involved in social work for decades, said she turned down a more lucrative job offer to become Lafayette's executive director. "I thought this facility and its programs were worth trying to save," she said. "It has a rich history in this community."
A. Beau White, president and CEO of Urban Health Institute, said he does not consider the center's closing dramatic because it did not live up to its potential. White was a member of the center's board of directors when it opened in its current location.
"Initially, the center performed very well for the city," he said. "It got a lot of interim support from the city." But in the late 1980s, White said, he began to sense a decline.
He blames the exodus of higher-income, more educated residents, in part, for the center's deterioration.
"With integration, there was a brain drain," White said. "Those of us who had better skills became All-Americans, going to white communities. So we took the human resources away."
It isn't clear what will happen to the building. A sale of its furniture began this week and will continue through Thursday, Griffin said. She hopes to make $2,000 to $3,000 to pay off debts.
Pub Date: 12/24/99