HEBCAC chief feels out of loop


AMID THE general excitement about the East Baltimore biotech park agreements announced this week, Lawrence E. "Chris" Cager Jr. can succinctly sum up how he feels.


"That may be too harsh a word," Cager said. "It's the word I'm going to use."

A month ago, Cager, 48, was appointed president and chief executive officer of the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, ending an 18-month search to fill the top job at the nonprofit east-side umbrella group whose territory includes the area around the Johns Hopkins medical complex.

HEBCAC, as it is known by almost everyone in the neighborhood, was created eight years ago as a partnership between the city, state, Hopkins and community leaders to oversee the revitalization of a large swath of East Baltimore. It later became the largest of six neighborhood "village centers" administering programs as part of the federally funded empowerment zone.

This week, the city announced the creation of East Baltimore Development Inc., a nonprofit partnership between the city, state, Hopkins and community leaders to oversee the revitalization of a large swath of East Baltimore centered around a proposed biotech park.

Exactly where the new partnership leaves HEBCAC is a question Cager has been wondering about.

"There's no doubt but that I'm concerned in the most basic way," said Cager, who came to HEBCAC from the Enterprise Foundation, where he was Baltimore director. "I don't know how else to feel but concerned."

Laurie B. Schwartz, deputy mayor for community and economic development, said she sees a future for the older coalition, praising the organization's operation of numerous social service programs and its network of community contacts.

"They can serve an important role, albeit a different one," she said. "EBDI will clearly be the redevelopment entity. I see HEBCAC as being the community entity, working closely with the city and EBDI as we move forward."

In an interview at the converted rowhouse that has housed HEBCAC since its inception, Cager made it clear that he supports agreements related to the biotech park that would give displaced homeowners up to $70,000 each to find a new home and that would assure minority participation in contracting, development and job training.

In fact, he said they were positions HEBCAC had advocated before he came on board.

"I applaud the relocation plan," he said. "I applaud the inclusion agreement." But he complained there was no document spelling out how his group would be involved.

Cager noted - and Schwartz confirmed - that early drafts of the agreements had two HEBCAC members on the EBDI board. In its final form, the agreement did not mention HEBCAC. Instead it called for two members to be appointed by the community, two by Hopkins, one by the state and three by the city; those eight members would then choose another three.

"It's obvious the politicians took the lead in this," Cager said. "At some point, they became equal with community."

One of the politicians involved in drawing up the agreements, state Del. Hattie Harrison, is HEBCAC's board chairwoman. The east-side Democrat said she understands Cager's concern, but insisted HEBCAC will not be shut out of the development of the biotech park and hundreds of units of new and renovated housing.

"There will be a place for us," she said, noting a potential role in the relocation of some 300 homeowners and 500 renters.

Despite HEBCAC's efforts over the past eight years, the east side declined and the area became a case study in the futility of trying to transform a severely distressed area through piecemeal rehabilitation of vacant properties. That failure helped serve as a catalyst for the plans for the biotech park, a large-scale project with the potential to produce widespread change.

Before Cager took over, HEBCAC's top job had been unfilled since Michael V. Seipp, the organization's first full-time executive director, resigned in October 2000.

Cager said he thinks the stigma of HEBCAC's unsuccessful spot rehab strategy, coupled with its 18-month gap in leadership, left the organization with a "battered image."

Now, with EBDI, he worries that the city, state and Hopkins - which provide about 15 percent of the organization's $4.9 million annual budget - could lose interest in continuing to support HEBCAC.

Cager envisions his organization continuing to run health and substance abuse programs, but he also wants it to have a role in the physical redevelopment of the area, including the construction of any retail facilities, such as supermarkets.

"I will work feverishly to get it," he said. "That is going to be the driving activity here for a number of years."

Unless and until that happens, Cager has a metaphor to sum up how feels.

"I feel," he said, "left at the station without a ticket."

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