Groups tear up liquor license to tear down crime

November 24, 2008|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,

To cheers and chants of "Burn baby, burn!" church and community leaders in East Baltimore's resurgent Oliver neighborhood put barbecue lighters yesterday to a photo enlargement of a liquor license they purchased and retired in their drive to rid the area of crime and blight.

"From the ashes will rise new homes, and from the homes will rise new families," said the Rev. Calvin Keene, pastor of Memorial Baptist Church, in a sidewalk prayer offered with neighbors and church members after the symbolic immolation.

It is believed to be the first time Maryland churches have purchased a liquor license and closed the business in order to eliminate a neighborhood trouble magnet.

The license might have fetched $75,000 if the group had elected to sell it, according to Stephan W. Fogleman, chairman of the Board of Liquor License Commissioners for Baltimore, who attended the ceremony. It cannot be replaced.

"Letting it die, rather than pass the hot potato to another neighborhood, is really an act of humanity. We're really happy about that," he said.

After four months of negotiations, Cookies Liquors, its license and its ramshackle, one-story building at Bond and Preston streets were purchased from their separate owners for "something north of $100,000," said Robert Rosenthal, vice president of TRF Development Partners.

The TRF partnership includes five historic Oliver churches linked through Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, and the TRF Fund, a Philadelphia-based social investment firm.

The group's goal is to revitalize Oliver through the purchase and demolition of blighted blocks and construction of affordable new housing. It hopes to capitalize on the neighborhood's proximity to the growing Johns Hopkins biotech park just to the south.

The partnership has already built 10 new, modular town homes called Preston Place. They are the first of 40 planned in the six-square-block area. Located at North Caroline and Preston streets, nine have been sold; the last is a model.

TRF Partners has also begun rehabilitating eight more neighborhood properties, and the community is dotted with more cleared, fenced lots awaiting new construction.

Churches in the area first drew together in 2002 after seven members of the Dawson family died in a firebombing after trying to expel drug dealers from their block.

They joined with BUILD and raised $1.2 million to begin rebuilding the neighborhood. Baltimore City kicked in $3 million, and the state added $10 million. The Jewish Fund for Justice matched the churches' $1.2 million.

Finally, TRF joined up, raising $10 million from 34 foundations and individual investors, including Catholic Charities and the Rouse Foundation.

The three-story townhouses are selling to qualified buyers for $139,000. Rehabbed houses are priced at $99,000. Johns Hopkins has offered its employees $17,000 toward any home they purchase.

It's not all about building new homes. Some cleared land in Oliver has been transformed into green space and flower gardens. Dilapidated alley houses in the 1600 block of N. Dallas St. were razed, and the land was paved and dedicated with prayers yesterday as new parking for Zion Baptist Church around the corner.

"We want to make a better place for our children," Keene told church members gathered at Zion just before Cookies' liquor license was burned. He envisioned a place "that allows them to even dare to think they can wind up in the White House."

Church members said drug dealing and petty crime in the area have decreased noticeably in recent years, and they credited increased visibility and cooperation from city police.

Cookies' closure comes as a relief to the officers who patrol the neighborhood.

"It's not totally the business' fault, but we have had numerous shootings" on that corner, said Sgt. Dennis Workley, the night shift supervisor for the Eastern District. "Shootings turn to homicides. Plus, it's an open-air drug market there. They use the liquor store to run inside and hide from police, and it ... seemed like it was always open."

Now it's closed, forever.

"The building will be demolished, and a new home will be in its place, probably a year from now," TRF's Rosenthal said. By then, instead of beer signs, he said, passers-by will see Christmas wreaths.

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