Agency aims to depart the city

Catholic Relief Services would move headquarters to 40 acres in Catonsville

More space, security sought

O'Malley hopes to keep offices in town with choice of 15 locations

April 10, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Catholic Relief Services, the international relief arm of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church that has made Baltimore its headquarters for the last 13 years, is seeking to move its offices and up to 350 jobs to Catonsville.

The agency, which coordinates emergency aid and development in 80 countries from 209 W. Fayette St., has proposed building a new headquarters on a section of 40 wooded acres owned by the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

Pat Johns, CRS' director for administrative services, said the membership committee of the order is to vote on the proposal next month. He would not disclose the terms of CRS' offer, but he said the agency is almost certain to pursue the move if the order accepts.

Officials of the Oblate Sisters of Providence could not be reached to comment last night.

But Mayor Martin O'Malley said last night that he is hoping CRS will stay in Baltimore. City officials have shown the organization 15 potential sites and are offering detailed plans for three locations downtown, he said.

The mayor noted that CRS was lured to Baltimore in part by a $1 million package of grants and loans from the city and the Abell Foundation.

"Catholic Relief Services is very important to economic development and the life of our city," O'Malley said. "One of the reasons for [a subsidy] from the people in the poorest jurisdiction in the state was our hope and trust that they would grow and expand here."

The agency was founded in 1943 to resettle refugees of World War II in Europe. It has since expanded to Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Now a worldwide, $373 million operation with 2,000 workers overseas, CRS has recently provided food and blankets to refugees in Afghanistan, aided rebuilding after a volcanic eruption in the Congo and brought rations to famine-stricken Malawi in southeast Africa.

When the agency moved from New York to the former straw-hat factory on Fayette Street in 1989, it had a local staff of only 180 - and three empty floors in its new building, which it initially planned to rent out.

Instead, as the staff more than doubled, the floors filled up.

Since 1999, Catholic Relief Services has had to rent extra space on Cathedral Street for 35 staffers.

"When we came down from New York, we thought this would serve our needs for as long as anybody could see," Johns said. But now, "we literally are bursting at the seams."

Security, parking and space for expansion are key factors in the move, Johns said.

Organization leaders found their inner-city location was in keeping with their mission of helping the poor.

Locating next to an order of nuns has similar appeal, Johns said. The Oblate Sisters of Providence was founded as the first order of nuns for black women in Baltimore in 1829, and has had its provincial headquarters off Gun Road since the 1960s.

If the order rejects the CRS offer, the agency will revisit other area sites - including some in the city, Johns said. It also is possible only some of the agency's staff would move to Catonsville, with the rest staying downtown.

He said CRS plans to stay in the Baltimore vicinity.

But O'Malley wants the agency within the city limits. "Charity begins at home," he said. "You don't have to go to the Third World or a cornfield in Catonsville to find poverty you can address."

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