NAACP has had its eye on D.C.

Proposed move has been decades in the making

December 20, 2006|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,sun reporter

The NAACP's likely move to Washington has been decades in the making.

Since the 1980s, when the cash-strapped National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was searching for an alternative to sky-high New York rents, leaders set their sights on relocating the headquarters as close as possible to the nation's seat of power.

In 1986, after much maneuvering, Baltimore and Maryland officials offered the nation's oldest civil rights organization more than $1.1 million in incentives to move to a cavernous brick structure at Mount Hope Drive in Northwest Baltimore. The financial package sealed the deal, but NAACP leaders saw an added bonus in Baltimore - it was just an hour's drive from Washington.

"When the board voted to leave New York City, Washington was its first choice," Benjamin L. Hooks, the organization's national director at the time, said yesterday.

The NAACP came a step closer to making that long-held desire a reality yesterday when the District of Columbia City Council enthusiastically approved $3.5 million in grants to ease the NAACP's move to an office and retail complex being constructed in the southeast quadrant of the city, near the Anacostia River.

The NAACP is still in negotiations with developer Anacostia Gateway LLC, and the relocation needs final approval from the NAACP's 64-member national board, which is scheduled to vote at its February annual meeting in New York.

But not everyone on the NAACP's national board is enthusiastic about the potential move, said the Rev. Morris L. Shearin, a board member from Washington who led a handful of board members on a tour of the proposed site Sunday.

Some voiced skepticism at the bleak site, in one of the most economically struggling neighborhoods in the city. But Shearin said he has worked hard to convince the skeptics that the area has potential, emphasizing that the move is not only strategic but essential to the NAACP's survival.

"As a longtime resident here, I know how the changes are taking place in D.C.," said Shearin, who is pastor at Washington's Israel Baptist Church. "The decision that some of our board members have to make is to look not at what is, but look at what could be."

Shearin promotes the site's selling points: It is on the cusp of downtown, offering convenience without congestion. Ample parking is available. And the city has made development a priority in the area, known as historic Anacostia, pledging to pump millions of dollars toward revitalization. The city's transportation department plans to move into a large complex next to the building being considered for the NAACP headquarters.

Washington City Council members described the proposed move as a boon for the city, hoping the NAACP name will promote investment in the area. "I believe this is an incredibly important move for the District of Columbia," said council member Vincent C. Gray before the vote. "For the headquarters of the NAACP to be located east of the Anacostia River is another example of the renaissance happening in Wards 7 and 8."

Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park, said seizing the opportunity in Anacostia is a wise move by the NAACP. Besides being close to Washington powerbrokers, it is a smart real estate decision, he said.

"Anacostia is changing," he said. "To be on the cusp of that change is really where you want to be. If the NAACP wanted to get into that particular location in five years, it probably wouldn't be able to."

Anacostia's rich African-American heritage fits nicely with the NAACP's mission, he added.

"There is some symbolism there in this move," he said.

The allure of Washington eclipsed the numerous efforts by state and Baltimore leaders to keep the organization in Maryland. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proposed a site in a $2 billion office and hotel complex rising along the Prince George's County banks of the Potomac River, while Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley lobbied with several downtown locations.

Until a few weeks ago, NAACP leaders expressed interest in buying a downtown property, said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm.

"We did a lot of due diligence and put offers in front of them," he said. "We knew that this was a very long shot, and that Washington and [Prince George's] County were very attractive locations. I'm sorry they won't be here."

"We've made many efforts to keep the NAACP in Baltimore," O'Malley said. "Unfortunately, we could not relocate the nation's capital to Baltimore, and that seemed to be the most important criteria for them."

Walters said the move is unlikely to affect Baltimore's civil rights activism because the NAACP's local chapters typically operate independently from the national headquarters.

"The local chapter in Baltimore has an outstanding history in its own right," he said. "I don't think it has needed the national office."

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