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Unemployed workers train to rebuild E. Balto. — and their lives

East Baltimore Development Inc.RentalsUnemployment and Layoffs

Just north of the Johns Hopkins medical campus, in the Middle East section of East Baltimore — an area where hundreds of families were moved out and hundreds of homes were razed as part of a $1.8 billion urban renewal project — a new neighborhood is beginning to sprout.

Under construction are $300 million worth of projects, including a state health laboratory, a 351-unit graduate student housing tower and a garage with a Walgreens drugstore, among other structures. Now plans are in the works for a mixed-income area with a state-of-the-art elementary school, a grocery store and restaurants, office buildings, and a park lined with loft-style apartments and a hotel.

"We've been able to ride through a very, very difficult economy with more construction work than anybody in the city and are emerging from this economy in a good position," Chris Shea, president and chief executive of East Baltimore Development Inc., or EBDI, said in an interview.

Still, the 88-acre project, which ultimately could include 1,500 to 2,000 new and renovated residential units and up to 1.7 million square feet of commercial space, has faced plenty of criticism over the years.

Former Middle East residents complain that EBDI has failed to deliver quickly enough on promises of new housing. Current residents say they feel left out of the planning. And many in East Baltimore who can't find work are demanding a bigger share of the hundreds of new construction jobs required to complete the project.

Into that breach has come a Baltimore-based church group — Community Churches United — and a workers' group, the Laborers' International Union of North America. The church group, seeking jobs for East Baltimore residents, has teamed with the union, which is providing instruction in construction skills.

On Thursday, less than a mile from EBDI's Middle East development site, several dozen unemployed men and women spread out over a grassy lot on West North Avenue to learn construction skills in the hope of winning some of the jobs.

One group of students broke up concrete with shovels or a drill, while others built scaffolds used by bricklayers.

Tikisha Knight, a single mother of four, said she has struggled to find housing and work. The former Middle East resident, who's now renting space in a basement with two of her children, said she sees the three-week apprenticeship program as a way out of her predicament.

"I'm hoping I can make this my career and get a house for my children," Knight said. "I want to be there for them. I want to send them to college."

Community Churches United says it has a list of more than 1,000 people in East Baltimore alone who are seeking construction work.

Program leaders are frustrated by what they see as a failure to employ enough local residents on city construction projects. They have offered to provide EBDI a pipeline of trained workers and are seeking to persuade the group to ask its contractors to increase their share of local hires.

"You don't have to bring people from out of state," Richie Armstrong, a community organizer with Community Churches United, said Thursday. "There are men and women in Baltimore City who are willing to do what it takes. [Trainees need] companies that are willing to give them a chance."

EBDI's initial development plan would fill at least 15 percent of commercial jobs with skilled and unskilled minority workers, with residents given priority. For residential aspects of the project, the goal is to have local minority residents fill 20 percent of the jobs.

EBDI officials say they have offered to meet and work with the group through EBDI's workforce development program but have received no response.

"If they have live bodies who are ready to work or interested to work, we'll partner with them," Shea said.

But he added that any labor agreements would need to be worked out directly with developers and contractors, not with EBDI.

Nonetheless, Community Churches United has focused its efforts on EBDI.

In December, the group led a march of about 200 people from a church on East Oliver Street along a 10-block route to EBDI's Chase Street headquarters to demand jobs. Shea eventually came out to address the crowd and said he promised to "work as hard as we can to place as many of you as we can."

Organizers say they are taking Shea's assurances to heart. Shortly after the march, they made plans for the construction training sessions.

Getting a foot in the door in construction has been tough, said James Gough, 47, an East Baltimore resident who has worked on road crews for the State Highway Administration but has been mostly out of work for the last couple of years.

"When you go on a construction site, they already have their own people," said Gough, who signed up for the apprenticeship classes because "it seems like this has … promise to it."

"Even if I don't get a job, they're giving us the proper training," he said.

Norma Jones, 54, who was relocated from East Baltimore when work on Middle East began, said she seeks to return to her former neighborhood — but this time as a worker to help rebuild it.

Jones, who was laid off from a custodial job several years ago, has never worked in construction. Now enrolled in Community Churches United's apprenticeship program, she feels she's getting solid training and a clear direction for the future.

"I feel proud of myself to be here," she said after a morning of mixing concrete. "I feel very confident I will get a job. I have a lot of faith."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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