A dogged pursuit of homes for deaf

Hopes: Five years of troubles don't deter developer from his plans.

November 30, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

They come to the proposed Wyndholme Village for socials each month, some with the aid of canes and walkers, undaunted by the large piles of dirt that should have become the foundation of their homes years ago.

It's been five years since they were promised the nation's largest community for the aging deaf on this secluded 24-acre hilltop in Southwest Baltimore.

Disappointed but not disillusioned, they hold on, tethered to Wyndholme by the vision they share with James M. Lancelotta, a boisterous, cigar-smoking developer who has alternately built up and dashed their dreams.

He is a former self-made multimillionaire who now has such bad credit he says he can no longer get a charge card. A previously hard-nosed businessman who has gambled his personal fortune and his family estate for this project, which, in the end, could render him an object of either adoration or ridicule.

In 1995, Lancelotta moved his parents off the property where he grew up, promising to bring them back once he built the retirement community there. Since then, he has twice lost control of it, declared bankruptcy and been forced to return dozens of $10,000 deposits to prospective residents.

He ignores pleas from his wife, siblings and friends to abandon a venture that has left him "penniless." Lancelotta, 50, is forging ahead with a new partner, a deaf businessman who rescued the foreclosed property at auction.

And though they've been disappointed before, deaf seniors say they're ready to write checks again.

"There's no other place for these people," Lancelotta said. "How do you quit on them?"

His wife, Katherine, 49, has another view. She likes the idea of deaf seniors having a place of their own, but she said her husband has held on long past the point where it's smart business.

"He's bullheaded," she said. "He's gone against my wishes for five years."

Lancelotta's commitment, apart from stubbornness, grows out of his family history.

He has normal hearing, but his maternal grandparents and an aunt were deaf. His grandparents came to live with his family in a big white house on the Wyndholme property when he was 12 years old, and he remembers with horror that they later moved into creepy old age homes where they died.

His idea for Wyndholme began as a plan for senior housing. But when he moved his parents to a home next to his in Ellicott City, his mother, Grace, now 81, made a request.

She grew up surrounded by deaf people and asked her son if he would consider reserving part of the complex for deaf seniors.

"Most deaf people of my generation were brought up in institutional schools, not in the mainstream," Grace Lancelotta explained, as she sat in her former bedroom, now her son's office. "They're used to a close-knit atmosphere. For them, this would be like coming home."

Lancelotta promised his mother he'd find out if there was a market for such housing. He found that nationwide about 4 million people older than 45 have virtually no hearing. No large communities for the deaf existed, just scattered public housing.

His property also is less than an hour's drive from Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf in Washington and a world hub for the deaf elite and intelligentsia. It is a few miles from the Woodlawn offices of the Social Security Administration, a leading employer of the hearing-impaired.

"I've found a niche market," Lancelotta concluded.

Lancelotta ran into money troubles in 1998, after a ceremonial groundbreaking attended by 250 people, including Kurt L. Schmoke, then mayor of Baltimore. Lancelotta lost $7.1 million in funding when a Denver-based company that had promised him a loan suffered an internal embezzlement scandal and withdrew.

To forestall creditors who wanted to liquidate, Lancelotta accepted $2 million from self-styled developer Stuart C. "Neil" Fisher.

But Lancelotta says Fisher, who was once involved in planning a Ritz-Carlton hotel along the Key Highway waterfront, failed to come up with other money he promised. Lancelotta subsequently filed for bankruptcy-law protection for his company, Wyndholme LLC, and filed suit in October against Fisher in Baltimore Circuit Court.

Fisher, who says he has sunk $2.8 million into the project and hasn't gotten it back, plans to countersue.

"Lancelotta has held onto this dream for perhaps too long," Fisher said. "I don't know if it's viable or not."

Lancelotta, who pulled his company out of bankruptcy in August, acknowledges he made bad business deals, but insists the project is back on track.

"It's like we were running in mud," he said. "Now we're moving forward again."

Credit for that goes to James R. Macfadden, a Silver Spring computer business owner who was the highest bidder on the Wyndholme site at the bank auction early in November. He put down a $125,000 deposit that day and by early January needs to pay the balance of the $4.67 million he bid.

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