Partnership aims to revitalize Central West Baltimore

A coalition of city officials, educators and community activists seek to revitalize an area of W. Baltimore.

A coalition of city officials, two universities and community activists launched a civic partnership Monday to revitalize the part of Baltimore that was at the center of April's riots.

At a news conference at Pennsylvania and North avenues — the site of frequent protests after the death of Freddie Gray and rioting on the day of his funeral — Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake joined with civic leaders to announce "Innovation Village" as an important step toward rebuilding Central West Baltimore.

"Innovation Village represents a strong community collaboration that fuels an ambitious effort by West Baltimore residents who have resolved to combine resources ... to do great things," the mayor told the shivering crowd outside the Penn North Metro station.

The partnership — aimed at bringing new life to a community roughly bounded by Mondawmin Mall to the west, Martin Luther King Boulevard to the south, Druid Hill Park to the north and Station North to the east — seeks to attract a mix of shops and offices, including business incubators.

They plan to develop an action agenda within 90 days that could include seeking city and state financial incentives and other initiatives to market the area to employers and residents. Already two startup technology firms have committed to opening locations there this year.

The site of the announcement carried symbolism. The backdrop was the CVS drugstore that is being rebuilt after it was looted and burned in April. Workers could be seen through the windows as they prepared the store's interior for its reopening early this year.

At the heart of the new partnership are two "anchor institutions" within the borders of the renovation district — the Maryland Institute College of Art to the east and Coppin State University to the west. Universities are increasingly working to revitalize neighboring communities by pushing development and organizing programs to improve education, health care and housing for nearby residents.

Samuel Hoi, president of MICA, predicted that Innovation Village could bring the type of renewal that in recent years has transformed the Station North neighborhood, which is on the other side of the college.

"It is a kind of multi-sector partnership that we need to nurture a next wave of innovation-based enterprises to help create jobs, increase city revenues, provide equitable access to opportunities and transform neighborhoods," Hoi said.

While the announcement brought out the mayor, city Comptroller Joan Pratt, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and other elected officials, the partnership did not have the unanimous blessing of local neighborhood associations.

Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., a former head of the Baltimore NAACP and neighborhood leader, said some communities were not consulted and questioned whether the effort would help those most affected by the riots, which broke out after Gray's death from injuries sustained while in police custody.

The announcement took place on the holiday commemorating the 87th birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and multiple speakers pointed to the collaboration as the type of civic action that honors his memory. It was the rioting that broke out after King's assassination in 1968 that helped precipitate the decline of the surrounding neighborhoods, where unemployment is rampant and many houses are vacant.

Howard Libit, a spokesman for the mayor, said Rawlings-Blake believes such collaborations are powerful forces for change. Combining that effort with existing initiatives, such as the Vacants to Value program that demolishes and renovates the city's vacant housing, can "create a lot of new hope and energy around this community," he said.

Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Detroit have zones similar to Innovation Village and Boston's has been particularly successful, said Richard May, co-founder of the Mount Royal Community Development Corp. and one of the partnership's organizers.

He said the idea is to build a 7-square-mile area that will use the universities, entrepreneurs and proximity to public transit to drive job creation. Multiple light rail and subway stops, Penn Station and Interstate 83 exits will make the area attractive to employers.

"It'll help companies to attract world-class talent when they don't have a car," he said.

Two technology firms — California-based Brioxy and Baltimore-based The Startup Nest — plan to open offices. B. Cole, chief executive of Brioxy, said that as a social media network that connects young people of color, her company thought the largely African-American area was a good fit.

"We were particularly interested in the prevalence of young innovators of color," she said.

With its emphasis on the role of universities — in this case Coppin and MICA — the partnership is similar in some respects to the Southwest Partnership. That group brings Bon Secours Baltimore Health System, the University of Maryland Medical Center, the University of Maryland Baltimore and its biopark and other local institutions together with neighborhood groups from west of Martin Luther King Boulevard to promote revitalization of that area.

"It is a resident-founded, community-driven enterprise," May said.

About 40 partners came together to launch Innovation Village with the help of a $25,000 grant from the Goldseker Foundation. That allowed the group to hire a staff member to monitor litter problems and issues with vacant houses, and come up with strategies to promote a cleaner community.

With support from the universities and some entrepreneurs, the group plans to approach other philanthropic groups for additional funding.

Among the partnership's goals is to revitalize the once-famous Pennsylvania Avenue corridor. In its heyday, that strip was the home of clubs that featured world-class entertainers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday. May said the group is actively recruiting entrepreneurs to host community engagement events at the historic Arch Social Club across North Avenue from the CVS.

Andre Robinson, executive director of the Mount Royal Community Development Corp., said the partnership was born out of collaborations among several neighborhood associations in the area, including those representing Reservoir Hill, Mount Royal, Marble Hill and Druid Hill.

He said he's aware that previous initiatives to revitalize the area have sputtered, but said this effort is different because it is drawing on models from around the country and learning from past failures.

"The main thing we want to avoid is that sense that this will never work," he said.

But Cheatham, president of the Matthew A. Henson Neighborhood Association in the Easterwood area, questioned the initiative.

He said the organizers of the partnership did not reach out to representatives of the Druid Heights and Coppin Heights communities. He said the group appeared to be dominated by people from the east of the target area, in the neighborhoods closer to MICA that didn't feel the full force of the riots.

"What gives them the right to come west?" Cheatham said. "Something is very suspicious here. Folks are throwing around money to groups and organizations that weren't directly affected."

Nevertheless, Greg Cangialosi, a member of the Innovation Village steering committee that will develop an action agenda, said the concept could yield big changes for the West Baltimore community. If executed, it addresses fundamental issues of inclusion and universal opportunity, he said.

"It is what Baltimore needs," said Cangialosi, co-founder of Betamore and chief executive of MissionTix. "We've all been saying, 'Wouldn't this be great?'"

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