Catholic Relief Services may stay in city

Agency mulls expansion, tables Catonsville move after visit from mayor

April 30, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Catholic Relief Services is backing away from its plan to move its headquarters from Baltimore to Catonsville, saying it will consider expansion in the city after all.

Officials of the agency, which is the international relief arm of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, said this month that they had made a proposal to build new headquarters on a portion of 40 acres of wooded land off Gun Road, owned by the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

But Pat Johns, CRS' director for administrative services, said yesterday that proposals from city officials about five potential Baltimore sites - along with a visit Friday from Mayor Martin O'Malley - have made the agency's officials more interested in staying in the city.

"He was very clear that he will do everything in his power to keep us here in the city," Johns said of O'Malley. "We had not heard that kind of support from him before."

When CRS announced its plans to move, O'Malley expressed disappointment that the agency was leaving a city that needed its jobs and employees. He noted that the city and the Abell Foundation had put together a package of $1 million in grants and loans to lure CRS from New York City in 1989 to its building at 209 W. Fayette St.

"I'm delighted that they're looking at sites in the city," O'Malley said last night. "We're going to do whatever we can to keep them."

He said such efforts might include financial help, depending on where the agency wants to expand.

Johns said the agency's talks with O'Malley last week did not cover details such as whether the city might provide financial incentives to get CRS to stay in Baltimore.

He did say, however, the agency is concerned that the value of its building has declined in value by an estimated 60 percent from the $7 million CRS spent to buy and renovate it. Its leaders were unsure - and still are - whether a long-planned revitalization of the city's west side will turn things around, Johns said.

"We want this to be a good investment decision," Johns said. "That's what has some of us a little timid about the options on the west side."

Johns would not provide details about all the sites under consideration, though he said one option would allow CRS to stay in its current, 100,000-square-foot building by acquiring a parking garage next door, where a new building would be built.

CRS, founded in 1943 to resettle refugees of World War II in Europe, has become a worldwide, $373 million operation that has far outgrown the old Baltimore straw-hat factory where it has made its home for the past 13 years, officials say.

About 350 people work at the headquarters building and in other rented space downtown. Johns said the organization really needs at least double the space it has now.

But while CRS has been looking for ways to expand for the past four years, only recently - after news reports that CRS wanted to move to Catonsville - did officials with the Baltimore Development Corp. offer detailed options, Johns said.

"We would never get past the talk stage," he said. "Options we had talked about seemed to just die."

Through a spokeswoman, BDC President M.J. "Jay" Brodie declined to comment.

The group has tabled its Catonsville proposal for now, though it could revive that plan again if city sites don't pan out, Johns said.

The Catonsville move had not been assured. The proposal had not yet won formal approval from the Oblate Sisters of Providence, and faced questions from local residents long concerned about development in the area.

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