Searching for Shangri-La

April 28, 2002

CATHOLIC RELIEF Services was a trendsetter when it moved its headquarters from New York to downtown Baltimore in 1989. Soon, a bevy of other important nonprofit agencies -- ranging from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to a slew of religious aid organizations -- followed, drawn by this city's reasonable costs and its proximity to Washington.

Because of this symbolism, it's dismaying that the U.S. Catholic bishops' official international relief and development arm is thinking of abandoning its downtown location. It wants to buy part of the Oblate Sisters' bucolic 40-acre property in Catonsville, off Rolling Road at Interstate 95.

The move is not a done deal. No agreement has been concluded. And a 200,000- square-foot office building near Patapsco Valley State Park could have knotty environmental, traffic and zoning implications.

There is no question that Catholic Relief Services needs more space in order to run programs in 80 countries. But that growth should take place downtown.

It's encouraging that Catholic Relief Services, at the city's prompting, is examining five alternatives that would allow it to expand the current headquarters at 209 W. Fayette St. to accommodate a staff that has doubled in recent years to 350.

Some other dynamic nonprofits also have run out of space in recent years. But the Annie E. Casey Foundation, for example, chose to expand in the Mount Vernon area instead of looking for a suburban Shangri-La.

With ambitious reconstruction gearing up around its headquarters, this is no time for Catholic Relief Services to drop out of west-side redevelopment. Instead, the agency should renew its commitment to the city's rebirth, fulfilling its mission of helping the poor, working to remove the causes of poverty and promoting social justice.

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