Director of two community groups in city, SECO and SDI, plans to step down by May

Departing leader reflects on opposition to `flipping,' growth in Highlandtown

March 07, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

Ken Strong, director of two of Baltimore's most influential community groups, has announced he will leave both posts by May.

"The time is right to make a change," said Strong, head of Southeast Community Organization (SECO) and its business-oriented counterpart, Southeast Development Inc. (SDI), in an interview yesterday.

"Both of these groups need someone with fresh energy. And I'm personally looking forward to a new challenge in my professional life."

Strong has told leaders of both groups that he will remain as director during a transition phase he expects to last no more than the next two months. The Baltimore native, who earned $70,000 a year directing the organizations, said that he is not sure what his next job will be, although he might return to work for city government or another local nonprofit group.

Before assuming the SECO and SDI directorships four years ago, Strong was head of the Bureau of Solid Waste for Baltimore's Department of Public Works.

Strong was involved in a dispute with former public works head George G. Balog about repairs done to a city landfill in the mid-1990s. Shortly after Strong claimed publicly that the landfill repairs were shoddy and that public works and a private contractor were to blame, he was fired by Balog. His dismissal helped to spur a still-active FBI inquiry into the department's inner workings.

`A visionary'

Word of Strong's resignation from the nonprofit organizations, which have a combined budget of about $2 million, has sparked an outpouring of praise for his work from the Southeast Baltimore community.

"Ken has been a visionary, a catalyst for bringing organizations together and making our community better," said Michael Jenkins, community services administrator at Johns Hopkins Health System. Jenkins praised Strong's efforts to bring together Hopkins and its surrounding communities.

Looking back on his tenure yesterday, Strong said he was most proud of his criticism of predatory real estate practices in Southeast Baltimore. Partly because of Strong's complaints in the past two years -- and a series of investigations by The Sun -- state, city and federal officials are cracking down on the practice of "flipping," whereby homes are sold to the poor for wildly inflated prices.

"The second thing that really stands out to me is the progress we're making on Eastern Avenue," said Strong. SDI has played a major role in the redevelopment plans for the Eastern Avenue business corridor in Highlandtown. The plans include a cultural center being built at Patterson Theater, a Walgreens, renovated business space meant to attract anchor tenants, and an $8 million regional library.

`Make the city better'

Strong suggested that as SDI becomes more involved in real estate ventures, the new head of the organization should have more of a development background than he possesses. SDI also is involved in the proposed redevelopment of the Broadway corridor stretching from Johns Hopkins Hospital to Fells Point.

Highlandtown-area city Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. said Strong's work on the library reflects his leadership abilities.

After an announcement that the library was slated to be built on the site of the only supermarket on Eastern Avenue, many Highlandtown residents were upset, claiming that their access to a grocery store would be jeopardized. SDI, under Strong's leadership, is working to build the library at another Highlandtown location.

"Ken Strong stepped in, he listened to all sides, he really heard what people were worried about, and he helped push this thing in another direction," said D'Adamo. "The result is we're going to have a compromise that's going to work for our community. The guy is a gem. He just wants to make the city better, and that's something we're going to really miss."

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