Timothy D. Armbruster oversaw $80 million worth of philanthropic investments in Baltimore neighborhoods and projects during more than three decades steering the Goldseker Foundation, but a small one -- for $3,500 -- stands out as one of his favorites.

Armbruster, who announced Tuesday that he will step down by next summer after 34 years, recalled how the foundation agreed to cover one-time costs to launch the Waverly Farmers' Market in the early 1980s. Still popular, the market has since spawned others around the region.

"People around Waverly and Charles Village … thought it would be a great thing to have a farmers' market," Armbruster said. "What they needed more than anything was to hire someone for one season to recruit farmers and vendors. And there was a guy who lived in the community who could serve as a market master if they paid him $3,500."

Today, Armbruster, 68, views that grant as one of the best examples of return on investment for the private, Baltimore-based foundation, established in 1975 with an $11 million bequest from the estate of Morris Goldseker. Under Armbruster's direction, Goldseker's assets grew to $100 million, and it found its niche in funding programs to fortify and expand Baltimore's middle class, typically in transitional neighborhoods.

"He's very much an unsung hero of the city," said Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, who helped Armbruster form the Central Baltimore Partnership, a coalition of universities, nonprofits, neighborhood groups and property owners working to revive Station North. "He's been in many marginal communities trying to strengthen them to attract more population long before it became accepted that you need to grow the population of the city."

Goldseker made an initial grant to establish the partnership. In the seven years since then, Station North has seen $440 million worth of residential and commercial development.

"He was one who could see that people had a lot more in common about where they wanted to go than they thought," said Joseph B. McNeeley, the partnership's executive director. "People in the beginning of the process were willing to come to the table because they trusted him."

Armbruster has been a force behind projects Goldseker funded and helped organize. It co-founded Healthy Neighborhoods, a program that evolved into a privately funded initiative with more than $100 million to invest in city neighborhoods. Along with the Abell Foundation, Goldseker funded the master plan for the redevelopment of the Middle East neighborhood north of Johns Hopkins medical campus and also chipped in planning funds for the neighborhood's new elementary school.

"That money came at a time when no one else believed in the [school] project and there was no funding," said Ronald J. Daniels, president of the Johns Hopkins University.

Daniels called Armbruster "one of the grand visionaries of the city."

"What you have is someone who has been this savvy … who can sniff out ideas and people of promise who have no track record or resources … people who are worthy of getting some investment from the foundation who go on to make significant investments in the city," Daniels said.

From 1989 to 2000, Armbruster served concurrently as Goldseker's president and as CEO of the Baltimore Community Foundation. Armbruster took on the extra role under an agreement in which the two foundations' operations became affiliated.

Armbruster will leave a legacy of stronger, better, safer neighborhoods, said Rachel Garbow Monroe, president of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation Inc., which with about $2 billion in assets is one of the largest private foundations in the United States and focuses on helping financially disadvantaged people.

"He has had for decades a commitment to communities and neighborhoods in Baltimore, at a time when it is so important for those in the position where they can exercise authority to do so and do so with meaning and conviction," Monroe said. "He's one of the really dedicated, serious and kind-hearted leaders in the community."

Armbruster became Goldseker's second president in 1979, moving from Ohio, where he headed the Cleveland Foundation. He thought he might stay for about five years, but ended up staying for decades because the job has been both challenging and energizing.

"There's not a day I get up and can't wait to get out the door," he said. "One of the things we have done over the last 15 to 20 years is invested in fewer things but invested in them longer and become involved professionally and personally in the partnerships with organizations we invest in. If you hang around and are committed to the rightness of what you are doing, it's amazing what a little bit of money and a lot of energy and a lot of collaboration and partners" can do.

But he decided it's time to bring in a new generation of leadership, someone with fresh ideas, and stay long enough to help with the transition. Armbruster said he hopes to go into semi-retirement, working some and traveling some. The foundation has hired an executive search firm to help find a replacement.

"As we see the city change in its landscape and its demography … his will be an important role to fill," said Monroe, the Weinberg Foundation president.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com