GEDCO celebrates its late founder, and its own bright future

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GEDCO's future plans include a commercial 'Village Center' at Stadium Place, with a health care emphasis and s

It was clear at a memorial service Sunday that the passage of time, just over four months, has not eased the pain of losing the Rev. John "Jack" Sharp, former longtime pastor of Govans Presbyterian Church and founder of the Govans Ecumenical Development Corp., a nonprofit, faith-based builder of affordable senior housing.

"When people think of GEDCO, they automatically think of Jack Sharp," Nichole Battle, the organization's executive director, told a saddened gathering at St. Matthew Catholic Church on Loch Raven Boulevard, where the service was held because Govans Presbyterian was having another funeral.

"I generally thought that Jack belonged to GEDCO," said Chief Operating Officer Lin Romano. "We loved him. I thought I could never imagine GEDCO without Jack."

As they gathered to celebrate his life and times, organizers were also celebrating the growth of an organization founded in 1994 that now has a budget of about $2.8 million a year, with 53-member organizations compared with seven when it started, and funding from a variety of sources, including the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the namesake of several GEDCO facilities.

But the service was also an opportunity to celebrate and raise money for GEDCO's future, with plans to build a new residence hall and a commercial health care center that will cost nearly $30 million combined.

"We're still kicking," Battle said, beaming. "We're still trying to do amazing things here."

GEDCO already offers 40 apartments for low-income seniors at its Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Senior Housing program at the Gallagher Mansion in the Radnor-Winston area, as well as 374 apartments at Stadium Place, on the grounds of the old Memorial Stadium on East 33rd Street in Waverly.

GEDCO also provides housing for the homeless and disabled at its Micah House, Justice Housing, Harford House and Epiphany House, and it sponsors two food pantries, CARES and the North East Pantry. Last year, GEDCO provided food, financial and employment assistance to more than 7,000 people.

Moreover, GEDCO serves more than 1,000 people annually at its multi-purpose senior centers, the Harford Senior Center and the Senior Network of North Baltimore, where the organization offers educational, wellness, social and nutritional programs.

The centerpiece of GEDCO is Stadium Place, with a full- service Y of Central Maryland and four high-rise apartment buildings, as well as ThanksGiving Place, a meditative, outdoor labyrinth and bell tower that Battle said was especially well-used after Baltimore's recent unrest and riots.

Stadium Place is also home to the $12 million Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Green House Residences, a residential, long-term care home and short-term rehabilitation center that looks and feels like a group home and is the first of its kind in Maryland.

Bright future

GEDCO's future appears especially bright at Stadium Place, 1010 E. 33rd St., where there's an 18-month waiting list of about 550 potential tenants, Battle said.

Plans call for a $17.2 million, 88-unit apartment building, tentatively named Elkader Way Residences at Stadium Place. Construction is expected to start next year on the independent-living facility of one- and two-bedroom apartments.

Also planned is a $12.1 million commercial complex called Village Center that will feature health and wellness-related service providers, such as a walk-in medical clinic, a physical therapy office and an adult day-care facility, as well as a restaurant and a coffee shop.

The center and its eateries would be open to the public, as well as to residents of Stadium Place, on a stretch of East 33rd Street where there are well-known businesses such as Johns Hopkins University's East Campus, but no restaurants.

"There's nowhere for them to get food," Battle said.

Other future plans for Stadium Place include building more residence halls — "We probably have the ability to build four," Battle said — and enhancing the complex as more of a full-service continuing-care retirement community, offering a full range of services from independent and assisted living to long-term care and memory care for people with Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

"We will have (proactive) services for seniors as they age," Battle said. Currently, she said, "When they get to where they need a certain level of care, we can't offer it."

Toward that end, GEDCO is forming partnerships with institutions and organizations in North Baltimore, including Keswick Multi-Care Center and Action in Maturity, "to provide opportunities and services for seniors as they age," Battle said. "We together can provide those services."

And she said GEDCO hopes to offer a host of other services that seniors sorely need, such as guidance on how to keep the houses they owned before moving to Stadium Place or other GEDCO residences.

Leaving a legacy

It's all in keeping with the vision of Sharp, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage May 11 at age 76. The longtime Idlewylde resident was well known in North Baltimore, not only as former pastor of Govans Presbyterian from 1977 to 2006, but as a tireless and well-connected advocate for social justice and senior housing.

"He made you feel loved and affirmed," his successor at Govans Presbyterian, the Rev. Tom Harris, told The Sun. "He gathered the pastors together on York Road to form GEDCO and it's now part of our identity of who we are."

In 1984, Sharp founded Govans Ecumenical Homes, a precursor to GEDCO.

The next year, Govans Presbyterian joined with Govans Boundary Parish United Methodist Church, Holy Comforter Lutheran Church, St. Mary's of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church and Pleasant Hope Baptist Church to buy the 1850s Govanstowne Hotel on York Road for $200,000. They spent $1.3 million to convert it to a 33-unit apartment building for seniors and renamed it Epiphany House, providing what Sharp at the time called "a continuum of care."

In 1996, GEDCO restored the rundown Gallagher Mansion on Notre Dame Lane in Radnor-Winston and opened 40 apartments there.

The organization also won the right to redevelop the old Memorial Stadium in 2002 as the $50-million Stadium Place over the objections of former Maryland governor and Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who as state comptroller had advocated replacing the old stadium with something that would generate significant tax revenues. But Sharp envisioned it as "a national model for urban living."

"He really was an innovator and Stadium Place was his crown jewel," Romano told The Sun after Sharp's death. "He always had a vision of taking care of people from wherever they came until their death. The elderly living in comfort is what he wanted, and they could be from all incomes or mixed-incomes."

Thinking outside the box

On Sunday, which would have been Sharp's birthday, Romano was among the speakers at the memorial service, which was also billed as a fundraiser. Others on hand included former GEDCO executive directors Mitchell Posner and Julia Pierson.

Speakers and scripture readers came from different faiths. One reading was by Imam Earl El-Amin of the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore. Posner, who is Jewish and now executive director of CHAI, Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc., said he was glad "to have helped (Sharp) in his vision in some small way."

As a pastor, "he had an endless supply of new ideas for ministry," said the Rev. Herbert Valentine, former executive presbyter of the Baltimore Presbytery. "He had that pastoral instinct of how to get things done collaboratively."

Sharp was "a determined visionary," who believed in nonviolence and fought to repeal the death penalty in Maryland, said the Rev. Dell Hinton, vice president of the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council.

"Jack, I miss you even now," Hinton said.

"If you were fortunate enough to have worked with Jack, consider yourself blessed," said Battle, 46, who first worked for GEDCO from 2006-2008 as head of real estate development and shepherded the ThanksGiving Place labyrinth to completion., Battle later worked for Penrose Properties but came back to GEDCO as executive director in 2013, succeeding Posner.

"Jack encouraged us all to think out of the box," Battle said.

The Rev. Ed Kenney, president emeritus of GEDCO and former pastor of St. Mary's of the Assumption Catholic Church in Govans, recalled Sharp calling him to congratulate him when he joined St. Mary's — and to recruit him to serve on the board of GEDCO.

"You know," Sharp said unceremoniously, "you're on the board of GEDCO now, and there's a meeting Friday."

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