Group building community center

Nonprofit to start $1 million project on Westminster's west side


With help from a church and the city, a group of volunteers will turn a vacant lot in one of Westminster's poorer neighborhoods into a community center offering youths a place to study, play and socialize.

The Westminster Community of Shalom, a nonprofit, faith-based organization, expects to break ground on the $1.02 million Union Street Community Center on the city's west side next month.

"We voted to go ahead and are moving on faith," said Phyllis Hammond, a Shalom board member. "There are challenges, but we will get this center up and running."

The major hurdle is a shortage of money - about $300,000. The nonprofit group has raised $775,000, which includes a $450,000 state grant. If the project had not moved forward, it might have lost the state funding.

"There was a whole lot of prayer and then we bit the bullet," said Westminster Mayor Thomas K. Ferguson, who is chairman of the group's capital fund campaign. "We are 75 percent there. If we did not move ahead and risked losing the grant, we would be in a hole we could not dig out of."

To cut costs by about $70,000, the Shalom board of directors postponed finishing the basement of the two-story building. The organization also asked the county legislative delegation to sponsor a bond bill to help secure the funds, Ferguson said.

Plans call for a 6,800-square-foot building, with rooms for tutoring and crafts, a computer lab and several recreation areas. It will be similar in architecture to surrounding homes.

"It will look like a house, shoehorned between two buildings," Ferguson said. "It is scaled so that it does not overwhelm the neighborhood.

The center will serve as an anchor for at least 300 children, ages 6 through 18, who live in the area bordered by West Main Street, Union Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, according to a neighborhood survey conducted by the city.

That same survey showed "overwhelmingly, these kids need a place to go" and most of them have no means of transportation, Ferguson said.

Hammond has a long list of children waiting to join her youth program at the Union Street Methodist Church in a space that can barely accommodate 25. The list shows "how very much this center is needed," she said.

She hopes to find student volunteers at McDaniel College and Carroll Community College.

"We can offer children one-on-one help with homework as well as guidance and supervision in a safe, loving environment at the new center," Hammond said.

Deborah Sims, Shalom board chairwoman, said Union Street has historically been home to low-income residents, with a high concentration of minorities, she said.

"These children get home from school long before their parents are home from work," Sims said. "The parents are doing the best they can, but they have to work. The children are not being helped now, but it is not from a lack of wanting to help."

The idea for a community center started four years ago, when the Union Street Methodist Church, a small, predominantly black congregation, acquired a building at 25 Union St. - a dilapidated, vacant home.

With help from the city, the congregation razed the home and cleared the lot. The church is leasing the narrow lot for $1 a year.

"There was a real need for something like this in the community," Ferguson said. "We dug deep into our pockets with no real idea. We formed a Shalom Center, an idea that sprang after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. It is designed to bring peace and economic development into troubled neighborhoods."

The center, which would be open from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and for various weekend activities, would quickly fill its schedule, Sims said. In addition to youth activities, she envisions adult evening programs, like parenting classes and senior workshops.

"I have no doubt that we will raise the rest of the money," Sims said. "The area truly needs this building and we will continue to work for it."

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