NAACP expected to vote soon on moving to D.C.

February 16, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

The board of the NAACP is expected to vote this weekend on a proposal to relocate the civil rights organization's headquarters from Northwest Baltimore to the nation's capital.

Those close to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People say the 64-member board is expected to approve the proposal to move to a new office and retail complex rising on the east bank of the Anacostia River.

While the much-anticipated decision would solidify the organization's intent to relocate, it would be far from the final step in a plan that has been decades in the making. When board members convene in New York tomorrow, among their top considerations will be how to finance what could be a $20 million effort.

The Rev. Morris L. Shearin, a board member from Washington, is hopeful the board will choose the merits of being in the epicenter of national power over the price tag. Washington would offer unprecedented access to politicians and power brokers, and the move would mark a historic achievement for the 98-year-old civil rights group, he said.

"This is an opportunity to make history with this organization as we turn 100 years old," he said. "There is no other place to go but to Washington."

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and President and CEO Bruce S. Gordon have long expressed their desire to make Washington the organization's home. Bond said the board voted more than a year ago on the concept of relocating to Washington, well before the specific proposal was arranged.

The organization operates a Washington office, with a staff of about 10, responsible for civil rights lobbying. That staff would be absorbed into the new location.

Former Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. fought to keep the civil rights group in Maryland. City officials offered prime real estate downtown, and Ehrlich suggested that the group relocate to a $2 billion hotel and office complex known as National Harbor being constructed in Prince George's County.

But while NAACP leadership entertained the offers, it made it known that Washington was always the first choice.

The NAACP is in final negotiations with developer Anacostia Gateway LLC on a 63,000-square- foot office complex at Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road in the city's southeast quadrant.

But the group has been silent on the details, including when it would leave Baltimore. Development partners said the project is slated for completion by June but deferred comment to NAACP leadership. Neither Bond nor Gordon returned phone calls seeking comment.

In June 2005, developers broke ground to much fanfare on the first phase of the project: a three-story, $19 million office building, billed as the first new construction in Historic Anacostia in 15 years. District officials lauded the endeavor, saying it represented a city commitment to revitalize depressed areas and would be a vital piece in a broad transformation of the Anacostia waterfront.

In hope of luring the NAACP to the location, the District of Columbia City Council approved in December $3.5 million in grants to help the civil rights group offset the costs. City and NAACP leaders said the organization would be a boon to the neighborhood, known for its rich black history.

Nevertheless, Shearin said some NAACP board members feared the site was isolated from the city center and worried that the promise of further development would never come. Shearin has tried to convince them otherwise.

"With all the growth taking place in Washington, D.C., you can't just go by where things are now," he said. "I don't know any other city undergoing this type of transformation."

The bigger challenge will be raising the money to finance the move, he said.

In addition to the district's grant offer, the NAACP has a potential buyer for its current home, a five-story 50,000-square-foot building and pine-covered campus on Mount Hope Drive. Shearin said the deal is not complete but could net the organization $5 million.

Still, Shearin said the entire relocation is estimated at $20 million. Just how the organization would raise the remaining money is not known. But some NAACP members said they worry that a huge fundraising effort would stress local branches.

"I don't know how much the local branches will be able to contribute, because they are already struggling themselves," said Rodney Orange, a former president of the NAACP's Baltimore branch and now its political action chairman. "This is not a move they can make being totally dependent on the branches."

Shearin said NAACP leadership does not want to burden the local divisions, and he hopes corporate donors would do much of the heavy lifting.

He said he doesn't envision a frenetic fundraising effort similar to that of the NAACP's relocation from New York to Baltimore in 1986.

That move was fraught with turmoil. The organization was in financial trouble, renting space in Brooklyn and desperately searching for a home of its own. In addition, employees were conflicted; some refused to relocate to Baltimore. Others preferred Baltimore and saw the city's proximity to Washington as a huge asset.

Heavy lobbying by Baltimore civil rights stalwart Enolia P. McMillan led the organization to the former retirement home for nuns on Mount Hope Drive. McMillan, who died last year at age 102, led a team of volunteers, who held bake sales and sold $2 "freedom buttons" to raise cash for the move. They persuaded city and state leaders to offer the organization more than $1.1 million in incentives.

"I don't see that happening again," Shearin said. "But I trust the NAACP, like most churches, when people see what needs to be done, they will rise to the challenge."

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