NAACP's move to Washington is postponed

Problems with fundraising, sale of Baltimore site halt relocation

May 22, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN REPORTER

The NAACP's long-planned move to Washington is on hold - at least for now.

Last year, leaders of the nation's oldest civil rights organization announced, with great fanfare, their intention to relocate NAACP headquarters from Northwest Baltimore to the nation's capital.

In December, the District of Columbia City Council voted to provide $3.5 million in grants to help the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People move to Anacostia Gateway, a 63,000-square-foot office complex rising along the eastern banks of the Anacostia River.

But three weeks ago, the deal began to unravel. Struggling to raise money and find a buyer for its sprawling Baltimore property - and without a president since Bruce S. Gordon's abrupt resignation in March - NAACP leaders told District Mayor Adrian M. Fenty that the organization would not be able to afford the estimated $20 million move.

So Anacostia Gateway developers have placed the property, once designated for the NAACP, on the real estate market.

NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond said yesterday that the organization is still "adamant" about relocating to Washington. He has been the driving force behind the organization's move for years, saying Washington's proximity to power and politics is essential for the civil rights group's advocacy.

"I wouldn't say the deal fell through - it's been slightly delayed," said Bond. "We have looked at other property in D.C. and are looking forward to becoming citizens of the nation's capital."

District officials expressed regret at the NAACP's difficulty in making the move, which was first reported yesterday in the Baltimore Business Journal. Officials said if the organization's finances were to change soon, the incentive package for the Anacostia project would still be available.

"The offer is still on the table," said Sean Madigan, spokesman for the district's office of the deputy mayor for planning and economic development. "If they can make it work, fantastic."

If not, Madigan said, city officials would help the NAACP find other locations and try to assemble new incentive packages.

"We would be willing to aggressively look at other projects and would look at finding additional incentives," he said. "I think all organizations have difficulties in their history. It is a very venerable institution and it would be a valued addition to the city."

`Abysmal fundraising'

Bond insisted yesterday that the organization's finances are sound, but said the move is hampered by "abysmal fundraising" last year.

"The first four months of' '07 were not great either," Bond added.

In 2005, the NAACP used reserve funds to cover a $4.7 million budget shortfall and asked a dozen employees at its Baltimore headquarters to take lower-paying positions.

Bond would not specify why fundraising was lagging, but other board members have blamed former NAACP President Bruce S. Gordon, who resigned abruptly in March, for not raising the money he promised to during his tenure.

"I won't comment on that," said Bond. "I will say, we are redoubling our efforts."

The setback in relocation plans comes as the 98-year-old civil rights organization is at a crossroads.

Gordon's resignation after less than two years at the helm sparked upheaval at the organization's Baltimore headquarters, just as the group's leaders were raising money to move to Washington and struggling to build lagging membership.

"Bruce left us in an awful pickle," said Rev. Morris L. Shearin, a board member from Washington, adding he is hopeful that the organization can move to the district sometime soon.

"This big dilemma we are in is because of Bruce Gordon," he said. "When Bruce came to us, there was money in place to do what we set forth to do. Gordon had an opportunity to write his name in history in a very positive way. But maybe he didn't realize this. I don't know."

Struggling to sell

The NAACP has been searching for a buyer for its Baltimore property on Mount Hope Drive for more than a year. The organization, which moved from New York to the five-story brick building and pine-covered Northwest Baltimore campus in 1986, estimates the property's worth at about $5 million.

When the Washington deal was announced, district and NAACP officials touted the move to Anacostia as a coup for both the civil rights group and a benefit for the long-neglected neighborhood hoping to capitalize on its rich black history. The project was billed as the first new construction in Historic Anacostia in 15 years.

"We're really disappointed," said Crystal Wright, a spokeswoman for the National Capital Revitalization Corp., a developer partner in the Anacostia Gateway project. "I think the D.C. Council and NCRC were very much excited about the prospects of having them in the nation's capital. It's unfortunate, but these things happen in deals sometimes."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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