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Village for deaf loses key backers; Fewer than 35 have signed up for 1st 180 units


On a scorching day, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the president of Gallaudet University stood on a hill high above Frederick Avenue in Southwest Baltimore and broke ground for a first-of-its-kind project: a large, gated community exclusively for elderly deaf and hard-of-hearing people from all over the world.

Eight months later, construction is stalled, and the future of Wyndholme Village is in doubt, according to employees and a letter posted on the project's Web site.

Developers have received deposits from fewer than 35 people for the 180 units in the first phase of a $150 million project that could include 928 luxury condominiums. Wyndholme is $6 million in debt. And two key lenders are no longer backing Wyndholme.

According to the letter, Cornerstone Private Capital, a Denver-based firm that had pledged to loan $7.1 million to the project, suffered an internal embezzlement scandal last fall and was forced to freeze its outside investments, including one in Wyndholme.

Cornerstone executives did not return telephone calls yesterday.

Worried about that loss of funds, another Wyndholme lender pulled out and initiated foreclosure proceedings. A public auction of the property has been scheduled for March 17.

"Failure of this community specifically designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing seniors would be a devastating blow," wrote Jim Lancelotta, Wyndholme Village's managing partner, in the letter, which was widely circulated in the deaf community. "I need your help to continue."

If it is built, Wyndholme Village would be the nation's first private housing community exclusively for the elderly deaf, and the largest deaf community of its kind, according to industry experts.

From the beginning, Wynd- holme's size has encouraged doubters. The next biggest deaf community, Columbus Colony in Ohio, has one-third as many units.

But when proposed in 1996, Wyndholme was embraced by the city, which quickly approved plans for the site. Hopes were high for unit sales.

An estimated 300,000 deaf or hard-of-hearing seniors live in Maryland, and the Baltimore-Washington area is home to the Social Security Administration, a leading employer of the deaf, and Gallaudet, the educator of many of America's deaf leaders. The 1990s, with the deaf earning a greater acceptance in mainstream life, have seen a growing counter-movement to preserve "deaf culture" through the promotion of segregated facilities.

Deaf historian Jack Gannon predicted Wynd-holme would become a national model.

Despite increasing worries about the future, Lancelotta and Wyndholme staff promise they will be able to win new financial backing before the land is auctioned. Michael Cavey, an executive vice president of Lancelotta and Associates, says an aggressive search is under way for financiers who could help with the debt.

Barbara Willigan, the former Gallaudet administrator who is Wyndholme's executive vice president for operations, is recruiting prospective residents and deposits with trips planned to Atlanta; San Diego; Orlando, Fla.; Boston; and Brisbane, Australia.

Before the project began, Wyndholme's property -- at 24 acres, one of the largest single-family residences in the city -- belonged to Lancelotta's parents, Jerry and Grace. Growing up, Grace Lancelotta had been the only hearing person in her family, and she became an early advocate of turning the land into a deaf community.

Today, the white three-story Colonial home of the Lancelottas still stands. Two large areas of the sloping lawn have been leveled and prepared for construction. A pile of dirt sits behind the house, and a pavilion used for activities for deaf seniors is complete.

For now, the site's only inhabitants are Jerry Lancelotta's dogs, Nicky and Caesar, who bark at the cars that drive up the hill.

Pub Date: 2/26/99

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