The first sign that this isn't an ordinary warehouse in southwest Baltimore is the bright blue murals of screwdrivers, wrenches and other tools painted on the exterior.
Inside, the real thing: shovels, rakes, hammers, paint trays, pliers, hard hats, ladders, wheelbarrows, electric drills and just about every tool imaginable for rehabbing a house or sprucing up a park. It's like a mini Home Depot.
This is the home of the new Baltimore Community ToolBank, a nonprofit that opens today and the third of its kind in the country. The group lends tools and other equipment for a small fee to churches, schools and charitable organizations as well as neighborhood gardens and associations for service projects, such as building playgrounds, cleaning streams or rehabbing houses.
This way the groups don't have to buy and store expensive tools they might use only once or twice a year. And they're assured that they will have enough tools for volunteers. Anyone who has ever volunteered for a community project and has had to stand around waiting for a shovel or rake to become available will appreciate this.
The idea of a communal toolshed that allows neighbors to share equipment isn't new. But the ToolBank, which serves Baltimore and the surrounding counties, is on a grander scale and more structured. And it can be of great help to area organizations that have many hands but few resources.
Steve Anstett, vice president of the Baltimore Community ToolBank board, says there's been a groundswell of charitable organizations waiting for opening day.
Groups "that are doing these great projects will do more or bigger projects now that we've taken one barrier out of their hands," he predicts. "They don't have to spend their resources on tools."
Adds Board member John Bacci, "We could probably triple or quintuple the number of jobs that actually get done."
The ToolBank works like this: Churches and charitable groups must sign up for a free membership at the website Baltimore.toolbank.org. (Sorry, you can't borrow tools for personal use.) The groups can place an order for tools online and make an appointment to pick them up on weekdays at the warehouse in the 1200 block of Wicomico St.
The fee is 3 percent of the value of the tools, multiplied by the number of weeks to be borrowed. Borrowing $1,000 worth of tools for one week costs $30, or $120 for a month. Tools can be on loan for up to eight weeks.
"It's a nominal fee designed to cover the cost of repairing and refurbishing the tools," Bacci says.
But the fee also is just enough to motivate borrowers to return tools, says Mark Brodbeck, CEO of ToolBank USA, which promotes the creation of ToolBanks nationwide. When tools are free, he says, people are less likely to return them.
Groups won't be able to borrow again if they don't return tools. And they must pay full retail price for missing items. However, they won't be liable for tools broken during normal use.
Brodbeck, who worked at the original Atlanta Community ToolBank, says only once in his eight years there did a group fail to return items.
The Baltimore Community ToolBank has nearly 8,000 tools and equipment worth $250,000.
"We are armed to the hilt," says Cassi Champion, executive director.
The ToolBank concept started more than 20 years ago with a group of friends in Atlanta volunteering to make home repairs for seniors and low-income residents, Brodbeck says. Over time, their tool inventory grew, and one of them asked a neighborhood association if he could store the equipment in an abandoned factory.
Soon churches and other charitable groups began borrowing tools for projects, and the Atlanta Community ToolBank was born. It's still going strong.
The Atlanta operation last year equipped 46,401 volunteers working on nearly 1,750 projects.
A second ToolBank opened last year in Charlotte, N.C. A ToolBank will launch in Cincinnati this summer and in Houston and Portland, Ore., next year.
Baltimore's ToolBank wouldn't be possible without grants and donations — which includes money, tools, equipment and labor — from a wide range of businesses and foundations in Maryland and out-of-state. Among them are UPS, Behr, M&T Bank, Home Depot, Stanley Black & Decker, Northrop Grumman, the Abell Foundation and Ames True Temper.
"It's a regular barn raising in Baltimore," Champion says.
The tool fees won't be enough to support ToolBank's operations, so it will need continued support from businesses and foundations to remain viable.
Champion's first-year goals for Baltimore are to sign up 200 organizations and equip 10,000 volunteers.
It's already on its way. Though the ToolBank officially opens today, it lent tools earlier this month for a park project undertaken by the Baltimore Maryland Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
More than 300 volunteers planted 200 shrubs and perennials, built six park benches, distributed three tons of erosion-prevention rock, picked up trash and painted a pavillion at the Double Rock Park in Baltimore County.
Event coordinator Michele Calderon says the church borrowed a wide range of tools.
"People could just show up. They didn't have to worry about bringing their tools and keeping track of them," Calderon says.
And the price was right: $71.62.
"I would recommend it to anyone," she says.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun