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Cardin, nonprofit leaders discuss how to improve Baltimore after riots

Baltimore philanthropic and faith leaders on Monday identified the lack of job opportunities for impoverished communities as a key obstruction to the city's recovery after the riots in April.

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin organized the roundtable discussion at the downtown offices of the nonprofit Abell Foundation to brainstorm how to uplift distressed areas of the city after rioting erupted on the day of Freddie Gray's funeral. Gray, 25, died a week after suffering spinal cord and other injuries in police custody.

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"We want to make sure we don't lose this opportunity," Cardin said to the group. "The spotlight is starting to come off Baltimore. How do we make lasting change?"

Some said well-intentioned job training programs provide workers with skills for which there are too few jobs. Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, said the organization is analyzing that "mismatch" and that a broad solution is needed. Relying on the private sector alone to improve the jobs outlook would be "unrealistic."

Cardin said that many employers have told him they are willing to "take a chance" on hiring people from poor communities but found those residents did not have the skills to perform the jobs.

The group also discussed other problems they believe underpin entrenched poverty in West Baltimore and other parts of the city, including racial bias in policing and over-zealous drug prosecution. After the riots, various political and community leaders have used the moment to advocate for police reform and increased funding for social programs.

Cardin and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, both Maryland Democrats, announced legislation last month to address a host of issues, including banning racial profiling, allocating $200 million annually for a U.S. Labor Department training program for former offenders and restoring voting rights for ex-felons.

Mikulski held a similar meeting last month with faith leaders in Sandtown-Winchester, where much of the rioting was concentrated, to garner input on the legislation.

The legislation faces long odds in Congress, despite some bipartisan consensus emerging around criminal justice reform. On Monday, Cardin said he was "optimistic" about its passage but acknowledged the headwinds it faces in Congress.

Nearly 400 businesses, many in West Baltimore, were damaged or had items stolen during the rioting. Nonprofit and public-sector programs have been launched to help those businesses recover.

The quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp. has awarded 30 recovery grants totaling about $77,000 and six forgivable loans totaling $142,000. The BDC eventually hopes to raise $15 million for the effort.

The state Department of Housing and Community Development is providing zero-interest loans up to $35,000 — as well as larger low-interest loans — for new demolition, construction or other recovery projects.

So far, the agency has approved $200,000 in loans to seven businesses affected by the riots and is reviewing another 30 applications, said Audra Harrison, a spokeswoman for the agency. The loans are being made to businesses directly affected by the riots or by the curfew imposed to restore order following the unrest, she said.

After decades of disinvestment in parts of the city, some community leaders at the roundtable on Monday said the city needs to develop a more cohesive plan for revitalizing distressed areas.

The Rev. Frank Lance, pastor of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church on Reisterstown Road, decried a lack of investment in West Baltimore.

"We can clearly look and see what's taking place in Harbor East and Fells Point, so there's clearly been investment and planning around those," he said. A plan for West Baltimore, he said, "doesn't exist, and I would argue it doesn't exist because we're not interested in making a change."

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Elder C.W. Harris, pastor of Newborn Community of Faith Church in Upton, said the city needs to address a lack of jobs and other problems that helped to stoke recent unrest before the trial of six officers charged in Gray's death. All of the officers have pleaded not guilty.

"Something needs to happen in between now and the verdict, because Baltimore cannot go through that again," he said.

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