Urban league has a comeback plan

Baltimore organization cuts debt, pays off loans

March 02, 2001|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

After years of financial difficulty, the Baltimore Urban League has a plan to get back on track.

The league has revamped its leadership, reduced its $1.6 million debt by about half and has improved recordkeeping. Officials are raising money, paying back loans and catching up on delinquent audits.

Although the nonprofit organization remains about $800,000 in debt, leaders are optimistic that it soon will regain its reputation as an effective benefactor of the poor.

"We lost our wheels, and now need to put them back on," said Marlene C. McLaurin, a United Way official who has been interim chief operating officer since September. She called improvements a "renaissance in the making."

The financial difficulties became public last year. Roger I. Lyons, who had led the organization for 12 years, was fired in June. Later in the year, two-thirds of the board retired or resigned.

In September, auditors said the league had misspent most of $741,500 from a federal grant designated for a city job-training program. The auditors could not identify where the league had spent the money, but the organization is working to get its records in order.

McLaurin said that under its old leadership, the league pooled money and spent it as needed, which led to financial irregularities. That practice has been stopped.

One of Lyons' successes was the purchase and renovation of the historic Orchard Street Church, believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. But the building became a financial drain, and the organization owes more than $800,000 on its mortgage.

McLaurin and President J. Howard Henderson are working to refinance the mortgage. They hope to receive help from the Maryland Historical Trust and a donor that has not been identified.

Meanwhile, league leaders are working with creditors to resolve other loans. Unpaid obligations include $17,949 for rent and $162,200 for welfare-to-work training.

Another goal, they said, is to acquire $1 million in contracts with public and private-sector funding groups by August. From August and December last year, they raised $276,000 from several organizations, including the Ford Foundation ($150,000) and the Open Society Institute ($35,000).

Donna Jones Stanley, executive director of Associated Black Charities, said her organization has donated $6,000 to the league for a financial reporting and accounting system. "We are really honored to be a part of helping that organization because it's very important in our community - for the whole community, not just the black community," she said.

McLaurin said some groups are reluctant to give the large, unrestricted amounts the organization needs to get back on its feet, but she hopes that will change as the league repairs its image.

While the transition board works on improvements, the league's programs continue. On weekdays, schoolchildren gather in the Orchard Street Church to use computers. A theme is "bridging the digital divide."

The league, which has been in Baltimore since 1924, also provides resume workshops, career counseling and General Educational Development training for earning high school diplomas.

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