Nonprofit groups believe Strong City Baltimore spent their funds on building renovation

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After a Baltimore nonprofit came under fire in 2020 for missing funds, a collection of officials at other nonprofits now say they believe the money went to a former CEO’s multimillion-dollar vanity project.

Those groups filed a lawsuit last month against Strong City Baltimore, a decades-old philanthropic organization that was previously known as the Greater Homewood Community Corp. Former CEO Karen Stokes ran the organization for more than 14 years until stepping down in 2020.


Under her leadership, the organization broadened its scope to focus on the whole city and rebranded as Strong City Baltimore in 2015. It rapidly grew its budget by managing the finances of more than 150 smaller organizations and projects in a process called “fiscal sponsorship.”

Smaller organizations often don’t have the experience, standing or administrative staff to receive major grant money, so they partner with a large nonprofit organization like Strong City. In return for managing payroll and overseeing finances, the larger organization receives a portion of their revenue, much of which originates from private foundations as well as taxpayer money. Strong City, for example, claimed it has managed more than $5 million of government contracts and grants.


By 2019, Strong City reported more than $14 million in annual revenue and was preparing to move from Charles Village to a long-abandoned building in East Baltimore. The A. Hoen & Co. complex, a former lithography factory on East Biddle Street, had been vacant since 1981.

“We wanted our presence in a place to help transform a community,” Stokes said in 2017.

Fixing up the 85,000-square-foot facility, often called the Hoen building, cost $28 million. The city sold the building in 2017 to an LLC controlled by Strong City for $200,000. The renovation was financed in part with almost $15 million in New Markets Tax Credits and federal historic tax credits as well as state historic tax credits, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The city and state also chipped in $500,000 and $400,000, respectively. But as of 2017, Strong City still needed to raise about $5 million for the renovations.

Strong City began to relocate to the newly renovated complex in 2020. That same year, groups began to speak out, saying Strong City’s accounting of their finances was in hopeless disarray, upending important community work involving at-risk, mostly Black children. Strong City acknowledged that it had not kept pace with its rapid growth and that antiquated systems were to blame.

Several groups no longer buy that excuse, instead blaming the multimillion-dollar renovations at the Hoen building.

Last month, they filed a lawsuit in Baltimore City Circuit Court alleging Stokes and other top officials at Strong City diverted funds to cover the rising construction costs.

“As CEO, Stokes masterminded the purchase and renovation of the Hoen building, intending it to be her legacy,” the lawsuit said.


The lawsuit claims that Stokes tried to replace the diverted money with a fundraiser in March 2020 just as the COVID pandemic was declared a national emergency, then stepped down a month later when that was unsuccessful.

“With everyone at home, few funds were

Karen Stokes, the former CEO of Strong City Baltimore, left, is pictured with Adam Rhoades-Brown, development manager with Cross Street Partners, in this file photo as they look around what will become the courtyard at the entrance for the Center for Neighborhood Innovation. Their organizations, working with City Life Builders, were renovating the former A. Hoen & Co. lithography plant into a mix of offices for nonprofits and commercial space.

raised and Stokes was not able to come up with the funds necessary to cover up her misconduct,” the lawsuit alleges.

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The groups — Aziz PE&CE, The Be. Org, Fearlessly Loving Yourself, Maryland Justice Project, Step up Maryland and The William Tipper Thomas Foundation — claim they are still owed well over $100,000 by Strong City.

Little financial information has been released by Strong City in the past few years. Its website has information mostly from 2020, and its social media accounts stopped posting early last year. In April 2020 and March 2021, Strong City received more than $2.7 million through the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

Large nonprofit organizations are required to report financial information annually, but the most recently available report for Strong City is from 2019, according to the IRS website.


Strong City did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment. Its website lists Reginald Davis as the current CEO, but Roberto Alejandro, lawyer for the plaintiffs, provided an email from Strong City that says Davis stepped down Dec. 31 — less than two weeks after the lawsuit was filed.

“After three years, I’ve decided that 2022 will be my last year at Strong City Baltimore,” Davis wrote in the email. “This fall, I shared with the Strong City Board my intention to step down as CEO and refocus my energies.”

Stokes, the former CEO, declined to comment, deferring to her lawyer, G. Adam Ruther.

“Ms. Stokes was dismayed at learning of the lawsuit, which seems to be based on misunderstandings, conjecture, and misinformation,” Ruther said in a statement. “She looks forward to setting the record straight in court.”