Goodwill offers jobs, is hunting property

Rising prices in S.W. Baltimore a stubborn obstacle

June 04, 2007|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,Sun reporter

The idea, born as leaders at Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake brainstormed ways to expand training programs, was simplicity itself: Let's go where we're really needed.

Translating inspiration into action has proved trickier than anyone expected.

It's not that Goodwill couldn't figure out where to go. It quickly settled on ZIP code 21223, a high-crime, low-employment swath of Southwest Baltimore that's largely south of U.S. 40.

It's not that Goodwill couldn't decide what to do. The nonprofit resolved to bring a fairly modest number of jobs that would serve as a training ground for local youths, who could then move on to other employment.

And Goodwill has money set aside to make this happen, so that wasn't the problem, either.

It's as frustratingly simple as this: In the two years since it settled on this new course, Goodwill hasn't been able to find suitable property to lease or buy there, even though there are vacancies in the area. Certainly not enough space for the 25-worker operations complex it wants to relocate from Anne Arundel County, which would require several acres; neither for an outlet center beside it with 10 employees. Not even for a small retail store.

Even in a neighborhood where many buildings are too decrepit to rehab, the group keeps running into owners who are convinced that big things are sure to happen soon, that values will rise if they hold on, because the University of Maryland at Baltimore is building a biotech park straddling 21223 and the next ZIP code.

"You want to do some things to drive up the economy, but it's just - it's all blocked," said Marge Thomas, Goodwill's president and chief executive. "We haven't made nearly the progress we thought we might."

Still, the Baltimore-based group, which trains the unemployed across the region, is far from giving up.

It now plans, as soon as zoning approvals come through, to open a boutique version of its familiar retail store in a parking garage for the biotech park. The garage is really in the 21201 ZIP, but it is so close that Thomas decided it was the best choice to get things moving. The store will have four to six teenage trainees getting hands-on retail experience for 20 hours a week.

A Goodwill trainer has begun coordinating job-readiness activities for youth in the area, helping students figure out how to follow interests to careers.

Also, the nonprofit says it will appeal to the city to help find space for the outlet and operations center, which would come with truck-driving jobs. Thomas said she expects to spend $3 million to $4 million on land and either an existing building or new construction.

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm, isn't surprised that Goodwill is struggling to get space larger than a rowhouse in the densely built neighborhood. "We'd be glad to try to help," he said.

Of all the things the area needs, jobs top the list, said Brendan Walsh. He and his wife, Willa Bickham, have run Viva House, a Baltimore Catholic Worker "house of hospitality," for almost 40 years there. The depressing changes they have seen all around the soup kitchen since they opened it have gone hand in hand with the loss of manufacturing work, once the lifeblood of so many city neighborhoods.

"If there was no drug trade," said Walsh, who lives at Viva House, "there wouldn't be an economy."

Fewer than half of Southwest Baltimore's working-age residents had a job in 2000. The neighborhood's violent crime rate was more than 40 percent higher than the city's in 2005 - the most recent figures from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore. The juvenile arrest rate for drug-related offenses was much higher, too.

Nearly one in four Southwest residential properties was considered abandoned that year, the alliance said. The same was true of one in six commercial properties. Even in a city with many vacancies, that's unusual.

Walsh, giving a tour of the neighborhood, passed by clusters of police cars with lights flashing as he drove up and down the streets. Over and over, he pointed out shuttered shops and crumbling rowhouses that he calls "abandominiums." Thousands of residents moved out in the 1990s.

"Look at this," he said on Baltimore Street. "It's just all boarded up."

Even so, home prices have risen sharply in recent years. People say things are improving. Stand at the eastern edge of the ZIP code, overlooking the biotech park, and it's easy to see why investors and residents alike expect ripple effects.

"All the riffraff have been moving out," said resident Robert Davis, 34, taking a stroll with 23- year-old Tiffany Speight and their 1-year-old daughter. "You see better housing opportunities."

They like the area. It's near downtown, not far from major highways, "close to everything," Speight said. There's the historic Hollins Market, the interesting architecture of Union Square.

But she was glad to hear of a plan to bring in more jobs.

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