Greektown off on the right foot

Patrols: Under retired officer John E. Gavrilis, the Community Development Corp. has seen crime reduced as off-duty city officers walk the neighborhood.

March 08, 2002|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

The beat goes on for John E. Gavrilis.

Two years after he retired as the city's chief detective, Gavrilis still polices Baltimore streets, only he now pounds pavement as executive director of Greektown's Community Development Corp.

Merchants and residents say his deployment of off-duty Baltimore police officers to complement the Citizens on Patrol -- a tactic apparently not used by any of the city's other roughly three dozen CDCs -- has improved community safety and put them more at ease.

"The officers are definitely making a difference," said George Avgerinos, general manager of Acropolis, one of Greektown's most popular restaurants. "Having their appearance on the street is making the neighborhood safer and helping to keep it cleaner. Business is definitely going to get better with their presence."

From Sept. 30 to Dec. 31, 2000, about the time Gavrilis came on board, 19 violent crimes such as muggings, shootings and armed robberies, were reported in Greektown. For the same period last year, 14 were reported, a 26 percent decrease, according to crime statistics from Baltimore police. Nonviolent offenses -- a majority of the crime in Greektown -- dropped 21 percent during that same period, statistics show.

Joyce Leviton, the city's division manager of community planning, said she wasn't aware of any other CDC using police.

The officers didn't begin patrolling Greektown by accident. Gavrilis -- who rose in rank from beat patrol to interim commissioner -- used his connections and got Commissioner Edward T. Norris' permission to employ the officers, who are paid about $22 per hour from CDC funds.

Reducing crime, increasing the number of homeowners -- 66 percent to 70 percent of Greektown units are owner-occupied -- and attracting more businesses are among Gavrilis' top goals, he said.

Like other heads of CDCs, Gavrilis must find private donors to invest in one of the city's communities that has experienced decline.

Last week, Gavrilis traveled to Washington to solicit staff members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs for money to renovate dwellings, repair business facades and construct houses. He hopes to get money soon.

"We have a shoestring operating budget which fluctuates," Gavrilis said yesterday. He said an initial grant from the state of Maryland for $156,000 covered start-up costs, which include salaries and the opening of an office in the 4600 block of Eastern Ave. The group also secured a $50,000 grant from an anonymous donor to employ the off-duty officers. "I beg and borrow to keep this thing going," he said.

"This thing" is the resurgence of Greektown, home to many of Baltimore's Greek residents.

As a married father of two and a Greektown native whose mother still lives there, Gavrilis is particularly interested in the community.

"When I first took over, 300 attendees at an October 2000 meeting unanimously voted public safety as the No. 1 priority," Gavrilis said. "They told me it's not clean, it's not safe and no businesses or homeowners would come to the community."

Now it seems, as a result of officers like Lt. Gabe Bittner, unit commander for the Inner Harbor and the city's emergency services and marine units, residents feel safer in Greektown, where the median income in 1996 was between $22,000 and $24,000.

"What makes me feel good about it is when I go around to check to see how business owners feel about it, they all like it," Bittner said. "You feel like you're accomplishing something."

Stacey Lioreisis, 30, who has lived in Greektown for nearly five years and is a member of the 11-person Greektown CDC board of directors, said Gavrilis and his team have increased morale and awareness. "It was kind of grim for a while. We had a lot of problems, and now people are taking initiative to take care of problems," such as calling the city for trash removal and crime, said Lioreisis.

Gavrilis' excitement about what's happening in Greektown is tempered by a concern that a shortage of funding could stall his efforts. That's why he spends about a fourth of his time soliciting funds from various public and private agencies.

Tricia Rubacky, senior development adviser for the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations, said it's often difficult for CDCs and other nonprofit groups to raise money.

"It's very competitive," Rubacky said. "Many of them are going to the same foundations, which means [the foundations are] receiving numerous requests for their limited dollars. Another factor ... is a lot of these groups have boards that have not traditionally been participating in fund raising or who are not experienced fund-raisers."

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