Low-profile renewal effort targets high-impact results

Urban Chronicle

June 15, 2006|By ERIC SIEGEL

A decade ago, a fledgling sponsor of neighborhood revitalization asked community groups to apply for grants.

As it turned out, the newly formed Baltimore Neighborhood Collaborative had money enough to support three revitalization efforts - in Reservoir Hill, Waverly and Irvington.

This year, the organization has given out nearly $600,000 to 11 groups in areas across the city - and it still has some additional dollars to award.

That's a hefty increase - and a fraction of what groups had asked for.

"We had $2 million in requests," said Ann Sherrill, director of the collaborative. An affiliate of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, the group raises money from Baltimore banks and local and national foundations, and awards grants for neighborhood renewal and transit-centered development.

"It would be nice to raise more money," she added. "As [federal Community Development Block Grant] money goes down, are we really increasing the money available?"

Last month, Sherrill sent me e-mail suggesting a meeting over coffee to talk about the collaborative's work and the neighborhoods it supports "as part of our 10th anniversary year."

For the collaborative, that was the equivalent of a public relations onslaught. In the decade since its founding, it has been mentioned in The Sun just five times.

"We have been low-profile," Sherrill said.

Sherrill is well-equipped to talk about the organization. She began there part time at the organization's inception; as director, she supervises one other staffer, plus an intern.

The collaborative's initial backers wanted to know how they could "make an impact in some of Baltimore's neighborhoods that were showing signs of distress but could go either way," Sherrill said.

One of those first backers, the Goldseker Foundation, remains an enthusiastic supporter. Goldseker has given the collaborative $625,000 over the past decade, including $125,000 last year, according to President and CEO Timothy Armbruster.

"The fact of BNC's being there has generated not only a comfort level of funders working in neighborhoods but a real enthusiasm," Armbruster said.

Since the collaborative's founding, Sherill said the focus in transitional communities has changed from "solving problems" to "marketing assets."

As an example, she notes the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council, a grant recipient since the collaborative began.

Ten years ago, Sherrill said, Reservoir Hill's major issue was open-air drug markets. Today, she says, the neighborhood still has concerns about crime and safety and acknowledges that Reservoir Hill is a "story that's not finished." But, she says, spurred by city intervention, the area boasts a "very strong real estate market."

Sherrill has firsthand experience in one of the neighborhoods where the collaborative is working to bolster the housing market through grants to Belair-Edison Neighborhoods Inc. and the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center.

"I bought [a house] in Belair-Edison in 1991 for $65,000. I sold nine years later for $57,000," said Sherrill, who now lives near Belvedere Square. Now, houses in her old neighborhood like the one she sold are going for $80,000 to $90,000. "With the [housing market] slowing, are we going to be able to maintain progress?" she asked.

The collaborative is in the second year of its largest grant ever: a three-year, $750,000 Ford Foundation commitment to encourage transit-oriented development as a way to reduce disparity between prosperity and poverty by linking people to jobs.

It's no surprise, then, that the collaborative's largest grant is in the same space. The collaborative has awarded $90,000 to the Bon Secours of Maryland Foundation and Operation Out-Reach Southwest. Its purpose? To fund two staff positions to help implement a five-year, 160-home revitalization effort south of the West Baltimore MARC station.

The collaborative is also targeting similar efforts in Station North and East Baltimore.

"Three years isn't a long time in terms of transit-oriented development," Sherrill said. "I think it'll give some strategies and planning for years of future investment."

eric.siegel@baltsun.com

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