The Rev. Donte L. Hickman Sr. worked five years to make his vision of a senior housing complex and community resource center a reality in East Baltimore. He persuaded a developer, politicians and bureaucrats to buy into his dream for the Mary Harvin Transformation Center, and secured city approvals, tax credits and favorable loan packages to make it happen.
But the building burned to the ground before it could be completed. The fire, which has been ruled arson, came on April 27, the day Freddie Gray was buried and rioting broke out in parts of the city.
On Monday, Hickman joined with the developer and city officials to announce the project would rise from the ashes — construction on the Mary Harvin Transformation Center will resume in short order.
"This is not a setback, but a setup to restart this project," said Hickman, pastor of Southern Baptist Church, located across the street from the center site. "The Broadway East community will come back better and stronger than before."
He said the $16 million center will help the very people hurting and frustrated about the death of Gray, who died after suffering a spinal cord injury while in police custody. Hickman described the center as a signal of hope for residents who see a lack of opportunity and who feel nobody cares.
The center had been scheduled to open in November. That's now pushed back to spring 2016. Construction could resume as soon as next week. The center will include 61 affordable apartments for senior citizens and a community center with job training, housing counseling and other services.
Developer Kevin V. Bell of the Woda Group said there was no way he was going to abandon the project, even after five years of effort went up in flames.
"What did not burn — what cannot burn — is the human spirit behind the bricks and mortar," Bell said.
Most of the structure is now a charred pile of debris that still smells of smoke. Only an elevator tower and stairwell remain standing, but Bell said they'll probably have to be taken down. Even the slab foundation might not be salvageable.
Insurance will cover losses incurred by construction company Harkins Builders, allowing the project to restart without additional loans or financing, Bell said. Companies involved in the financing — Capital One Bank and Hudson Housing Capital — remain on board.
"Our financial partners have got guts and commitment," Bell said. "Not all financial partners would stay committed."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said it was heartbreaking to see fire consume the center and other buildings in Baltimore — incidents viewed around the world.
She said "it is up to us to light the same fire for rebuilding" throughout the city.
"We're not going to just get back to where we were," she added. "We will get better than where we were."
Bell said he's been impressed that Baltimore residents have responded to last week's rioting and destruction with largely peaceful demonstrations and rallies, as neighbors work together to clean up damaged communities.
"People who live in Baltimore's communities have a double dose of grit," Bell said. He called on other business leaders to reinvest in the city.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is investigating the center fire and several others set during the riots. The ATF is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to convictions. Anyone with information may call 1-888-ATF-FIRE (1-888-283-3473). Video evidence can be submitted at atfbaltimorefire.com.
Cassandra Jones and Jackie Holmes were among a small crowd of church members and neighbors who watched Monday's announcement about the rebuilding plan. Both members of Southern Baptist Church, they said they took pride in seeing their pastor lead the way.
"It's just a blessing to see everyone come together," Jones said. "We're burned down, but we're not burnt out."
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