Catholic Relief weighs 3 HQ sites

Charity narrows list but won't identify downtown buildings

Commitment to city is firm

August 03, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Catholic Relief Services has narrowed its search for a new headquarters to three downtown sites - adhering to its promise of remaining in the city - and the charity hopes to be able to announce a decision by fall, officials said yesterday.

"We're still on the hunt," Patrick C. Johns, director of administrative services for Catholic Relief, said yesterday. "We're keeping our pledge to stay in the city. We would have liked to have locked on to something earlier than now. One of our difficulties is the buildings here in the city are either too big or too small."

Catholic Relief officials announced in February that they had withdrawn from the convention hotel project that would have included a new home for the charity on a lot just north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. At the time they said they couldn't wait for the new structure and planned to quickly buy and move into an existing downtown building.

Part of the delay has been the dearth of buildings in the 150,000-square-foot to 200,000-square-foot range, said David M. Gillece, president of the commercial real estate firm Colliers Pinkard, which is advising the relief agency.

"There's been a lot of interest in Class B office buildings that wasn't there even a year ago - primarily for residential conversions," Gillece said. "I'm a little disappointed it's taken as long as it has. Our timing was terrible. Unfortunately, we started looking for existing buildings at the same time everyone else did."

Gillece said he hopes a deal can be completed by October and estimates that the soonest Catholic Relief could move into its new space would be a year from the time of purchase.

Johns and Gillece yesterday declined to identify the three sites under consideration.

Catholic Relief, with headquarters at 209 W. Fayette St., is seeking to accommodate a staff that will grow to more than 400 employees, Johns said. The charity now has more than 300 employees.

When the economy slowed down recently, Catholic Relief put some of its growth plans on hold, diminishing the urgency of finding new space, Johns said.

"We weren't bursting at the seams as we would have been if we'd kept to that growth plan," he said.

Mayor Martin O'Malley had pledged to include Catholic Relief's offices in plans for the convention hotel when it appeared possible that the agency might seek a new headquarters outside the city.

The charity looked at two dozen sites downtown four years ago. It also briefly considered moving to the Catonsville area.

Catholic Relief has not requested nor been offered any incentives by the city to stay downtown, officials have said.

Johns said yesterday that moving out of Baltimore was never the agency's preference.

"Staying in the city has always been our first choice," he said. "Going to the suburbs was always a fallback measure. We want to feel like we're part of the city of Baltimore. It's been our home for 15 years now."

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