In an emotional rally yesterday, defiant and determined Baltimore church leaders called upon parishioners to fight plans for a downtown convention center hotel unless the city equally funds the redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods.
In booming voices that echoed through the cavernous St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church in West Baltimore, ministers with the faith-based nonprofit organization BUILD contrasted the thriving Inner Harbor area where the hotel would be with "our Baltimore," the hard-luck streets of neighborhoods such as Sandtown, Upton and Harlem Park. Then they demanded equity.
"It looks like a tale of two cities," the Rev. Marshall Prentice of Zion Baptist Church said from the pulpit. "The city they see and the city we see. ... In their city, they want one hotel after another after another. We say, 'Stop seeing hotels and start seeing what we see.'"
BUILD - Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development - called upon 35 representatives from the crowd of about 275 people to protest at City Hall today during a 10 a.m. City Council hearing on the proposed hotel.
In particular, BUILD scorned council President Sheila Dixon who, according to the group, is reneging on a campaign promise to dedicate $50 million for redevelopment efforts in struggling neighborhoods.
"Who shall I send to an excuse-making Sheila Dixon?" bellowed Bishop Douglas Miles, pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church on Greenmount Avenue. "Who will stand up? Who shall I send?"
Many from the crowd, already clapping and whooping praise to the Lord and Miles' message, strode down the cranberry-carpeted center aisle to join the bishop before the pulpit.
Neither Dixon nor her spokesman could be reached last night.
A month ago, when BUILD members marched into a meeting of the Board of Estimates to accuse Dixon of breaking her promise and to demand a meeting, she agreed to talk later with the group, which represents 50 city churches.
BUILD officials said Dixon and Mayor Martin O'Malley were invited to yesterday's gathering, but neither attended. The group left two empty chairs on the podium with each of their names taped to them.
Miles said the final straw came last week when a "stonewalling" Dixon e-mailed him a 32-page application for aid.
Standing in front of the church pews, he tossed the document into the air. As the papers fluttered to the ground, audience members leapt to their feet and cheered.
O'Malley, along with city development and tourism officials, says Baltimore needs a convention center hotel to revive its sagging convention business. The city would develop and own the 752-room Hilton, which would be paid for with $305 million in city revenue bonds. It would be built adjacent to the convention center just north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
BUILD has worked for years to build hundreds of new houses in some of Baltimore's roughest neighborhoods. Some of those houses in Sandtown-Winchester, near St. Peter Claver, stand in neat, red-bricked contrast with the boarded homes and graffiti-riddled former shops at the decrepit intersection of Fremont and Pennsylvania avenues.
BUILD churches have raised more than $1 million to improve the east side's Oliver neighborhood, and state and federal lawmakers have pledged money for the cause. O'Malley has offered $400,000 to demolish old homes, but the group, hoping to bankroll a longer-term plan that includes other neighborhoods, is insisting on millions.
"We're not asking for a handout," Prentice said. "We're asking for an investment. ... We just want the same respect that is given downtown uptown."
The crowd filed out of the church singing "We Shall Overcome."
Outside, Carol Reckling, who attends Heritage United Church of Christ in Liberty Heights, said she'll be at City Hall this morning. She called the Inner Harbor "an insatiable beast," always wanting more.
"They say if we only had this one thing it would be better. Then we build it and it's the next thing and the next thing," she said. "And look where we are, all these boarded-up homes."
Tempie McCray, a BUILD member from Northeast Baltimore, said she and her group won't allow city leaders to continue ignoring the inner city.
"BUILD is in for the fight of their lives," she said. "We're not backing down."
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun