Future of city group in doubt

Nonprofit organization aiding North Baltimore faces big fiscal problems

`We just ran into trouble'

Some in neighborhood fear new Pen Lucy center may be GEMS' last hurrah

January 22, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Four years after public funding was approved, a multipurpose community center is set to open in a distressed stretch of North Baltimore.

But the sense of celebration over completion of the Pen Lucy Community Center and its potential for helping to revitalize the neighborhood is accompanied by concern about the future of the Govans Economic Management Senate, a small nonprofit group that has overseen the center's development.

GEMS, as the 15-year-old organization is widely known, owes about $22,000 in unpaid employee withholding taxes to the Internal Revenue Service -- and the city is refusing to turn over about six times that amount in locally administered federal funds until the problem is resolved. The organization also failed to pay several thousand dollars in city property taxes on the community center -- built largely with $180,000 in city and state funds GEMS received in 2000 to convert a vacant two-story apartment house and build an addition. Last fall, GEMS reduced its staff to two people.

And last month, the group's executive director, Garrard Johnson, was arrested by city narcotics detectives outside a Govans rowhouse and charged with three drug counts, including possession with intent to distribute cocaine worth $15,000.

According to court records, Johnson accepted a UPS package that city detectives had been tipped off was a delivery of drugs. He signed for the package using the last name of the owner of the house, to whom the package was sent.

Johnson declined to discuss the charges or how they may affect GEMS or his future at the organization. "I have no comment as it relates to the charges at all. No comment," he said Tuesday night.

Sedral West, board chairwoman of GEMS, said she was unaware of the charges until contacted by a reporter. She called an emergency meeting of the GEMS board for tonight.

The charges against Johnson lend additional urgency to discussions among a group of larger nonprofit groups that operate in the area on ways to provide fund-raising and administrative support to try to ensure that what should be GEMS' crowning achievement -- the community center -- doesn't turn out to be the group's last hurrah.

"Talking about having to persevere, this is going to be something else for the organization to overcome," Jason A. Canapp, president of the York Road Partnership, said yesterday.

In an earlier interview, Johnson called the completion of the community center a "triumph in the face of adversity."

"We like to think we're good guys. We just ran into trouble," he said. "You try to do so much because the need is there."

In the 3900 block of Old York Road, the Pen Lucy Community Center is at the lower, and more blighted, end of the area in which GEMS operates. It is bounded by 39th Street and Argonne Drive on the south, York Road on the west, Woodbourne Avenue on the north and The Alameda on the east.

Known mostly by the York Road commercial corridor but consisting largely of single-family detached houses and rowhouses, it's an area that for years has been struggling to maintain middle-class stability.

According to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, the median household income for the Greater Govans area is $32,147 -- about $2,000 above the citywide average. About 93 percent of the residents are black, and about 5 percent are white.

Many of the neighborhoods within GEMS' area, including Woodbourne-McCabe, Wilson Park and Pen Lucy, lost over 10 percent of their population in the past decade, census figures show.

Efforts to stabilize the area date to at least 1979, when Neighborhood Housing Services, then a nascent group that had begun working in the Patterson Park area of southeast five years before, began a program in Govans. When Neighborhood Housing closed its Govans operation in 1989, a group of concerned residents began GEMS to fill the void in encouraging homeownership and property revitalization.

That long-standing effort at neighborhood stabilization is a key reason why many consider the future of GEMS to be so vital.

"We want to see development and progress," said Julia Pierson, executive director of the Govans Ecumenical Development Corp., a church-based organization she describes as the "other Govans group," spearheading the development of Stadium Place on the site of the demolished Memorial Stadium. "We're concerned about GEMS, and want to help out if we can."

GEMS' activity peaked in the late 1990s and in the early part of the decade. With half a dozen staff members and the help of a three-year, $150,000 grant from the Baltimore Neighborhood Collaborative, the organization built a handful of new homes on vacant lots, counseled home buyers and helped coordinate the area HotSpots community-based crime-fighting initiative. They also began work on the community center.

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