The brand new St. John's Commons building sits quietly at the corner of North Stokes Street and Pennington Avenue in Havre de Grace, its wraparound porch neatly lined with tall, white rocking chairs.
But the speakers who celebrated the senior facility's grand opening Tuesday made it clear that the peaceful-looking building is the culmination of a long struggle, one that featured a lawsuit and the deletion of one story in concession to the project's opponents.
"Throughout this whole process, it was tough and we felt like quitting. We had some late-night zoning meetings and we had some opposition from the neighbors," Sharon McGlothlin, executive director of St. John's Commons and Towers, told the large crowd seated in front of the building.
She said the suit tied up the project for three years, and she kept the Scriptural verse of Galatians 6:9 to get her through it: "Let us not lose heart doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary."
McGlothlin thanked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which first awarded a $5.8 million grant toward the project in 2007; the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Inc., which awarded a grant of $400,000; Harford County's Department of Community Services, which gave $200,000; The Dresher Foundation for donating $10,000; PNC Bank for donating $5,000; and the Susquehanna Ministerium and the. St. John's Episcopal Church Vestry and board of directors.
She said the completion of the project feels like she had a baby after seven years.
"Seven years ago, the staff of St. John's Towers had a vision that we needed more affordable housing," she said, noting that the church rector who worked on the original vision, Father John Elledge Jr., died in 2009.
The community room at St. John's Commons is named after him.
"This was also his dream, and we are very, very sad he is not here today to see this come to fruition," McGlothlin said.
She also said Harkins Builders "did a bang-up job," and thanked Jay Young, of Brown, Brown and Young, for legal representation during the suit.
Havre de Grace Mayor Wayne Dougherty said he was relieved he could now talk freely about the project, in which he could not participate because his brother, Merrill Dougherty, owned the property.
"I have very mixed emotions about today," Wayne Dougherty said. "It was very difficult because I knew what the vision was, I knew what the vision could be."
He said he was grateful that City Council President Bill Martin stepped up to work on the whole thing, and confessed that he did not speak with his brother about the project at all.
"God gave us that strength because God knew that effort was needed," Dougherty said. "We are so fortunate to have Sharon and her staff…These are folks who make our city what it is today."
Mary Ann Henderson, the Chesapeake director of multifamily housing for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said St. John's Commons shows what Americans can do.
"This is truly an inspirational story," she said. "This is definitely American exceptionalism. I just hope that people who were worried and concerned about this project look at this and say, 'Why was I so concerned?'"
Tiffany Robinson, Harford County community development coordinator, thanked the many people involved and said the project was definitely needed.
"As is everywhere, we have a growing elderly population, and what better way to honor them than to continue building beautiful housing such as this," she said.
Cathy Vincenti, executive director of Havre de Grace Chamber of Commerce, was excited to see St. John's Commons done.
"This project has just truly made me prouder to be a Havre de Gracian," she said. "When I walk in, I get the best vibes in this building."
She thanked those who worked on the building on behalf of the business community.
"You wanted it, you worked for it and you got it, and I hope someday I will be living here," she said.
Billee Smith, who owns Distinctive Décor on St. John Street and did the interior design for the building, also presented McGlothlin with a painting of St. John's Commons made by a local artist.