A center of attention


Everyone knows that the neighborhood around 4650 Reisterstown Road needs some hope, so Charles Ellerba wonders: Why won't his neighbors, or the city, let him help?

Mr. Ellerba, a rugged 58-year-old whose blue jeans are stained with white paint, has spent almost three years trying to establish a catch-all community center offering child care, talent shows, youth dances, flea markets, recreation and job training.

He already has a building at 4650 Reisterstown Road, Internal Revenue Service approval for a nonprofit organization and a clear vision of a self-sustaining program that shuns government grants.

"I'm independent -- I don't want any money to run my building," says Mr. Ellerba, who has named his nonprofit group Aggressive Drive Against Poverty's Traditions (ADAPT). "If I get money from the government, they control me."

The center, which runs informally out of the building now, seeks to teach children and adults the social, educational and work skills needed for success.

But Mr. Ellerba is so uncompromising that neighbors and city zoning officials have opposed many of his aims. He has met with neighbors only reluctantly and is openly dismissive of the city's concerns about the safety of a center that would draw children into an area zoned for industrial use.

Some neighbors consider the center to be a potential safe hangout for children who want to play or do homework. But Viola Bell, a Baltimore native who is president of the United Hope Community Group, leads a group of neighbors who accuse Mr. Ellerba of refusing to answer their questions about his plans and the building's safety.

"My belief is that if you're trying to do good, you have no reason not to disclose the information the community wants," Ms. Bell said.

Suspicious neighbors so far have succeeded in delaying Mr. Ellerba's efforts to secure the permits for a full-service center. A hearing before the city's board of municipal and zoning appeals, on Oct. 17 is likely to resolve the controversy.

"All these permits and fees from the city, and all this talk from neighbors -- it's ridiculous," he says. "We're trying to help people."

Assisting Mr. Ellerba is Jennifer Jones, a 44-year-old computer processor. She has donated equipment, led summer programs and handles administrative details.

Mr. Ellerba spends his entire salary from construction work on the center, he says.

Almost three years ago, the building owner, Dr. Bernard Kapiloff, took a liking to Mr. Ellerba's idea and arranged to sell him the building. Mr. Ellerba, who builds cabinets and fences for a living, then spent his own money -- about $38,000, he says -- on materials to renovate the building.

But with the center in limbo, he says he can't schedule fund-raisers, and the renovation has slowed. Mr. Ellerba has been unable to make payments to Dr. Kapiloff, who is covering the center's insurance and property taxes.

"And on top of that, we've been vandalized constantly," Mr. Ellerba says. "On Mother's Day, somebody even came into our front-yard garden and stole the azaleas."

Mr. Ellerba also has quarreled with the city. His Friday night dances were shut down after neighbors complained about noise and large crowds. Inspectors cited him for trash after Mr. Ellerba called the city to complain about neighbors dumping refuse on the property.

In March, Mr. Ellerba filed for a conditional-use permit that would allow him to run the multipurpose center. But city officials say they have not approved his request because of opposition from neighbors and because of the wide variety of uses he plans.

"What he's doing is different than anything I've ever seen," says Donna Johnson, the city's zoning administrator. "Just the fact that he wants to do so much -- that's a very mixed use."

For now, the center looks like a construction project for which the funding ran out. Some rooms have new carpets, while walls in others have peeling paint.

"I don't know if we're going to make it," Mr. Ellerba says.

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