Catonsville leaders eager to talk to Smith


Even before the Baltimore County executive arrives in Catonsville tonight for another in his series of neighborhood roundtable discussions, civic leaders said the visit has sparked a renewed sense of cooperation in the west-side community.

The business, neighborhood and religious leaders who are slated to participate in a panel discussion said that in preparing for James T. Smith Jr.'s arrival, they identified common challenges, such as the need for more after-school programs and aid for senior citizens, and assets that include good schools, a robust housing market and strong business districts.

"This is not 'I'm coming in opposition to the county executive,' but rather in partnership to see how we can address these issues and to lift up the good things about our community," said one of the panel members, the Rev. Dellyne Hinton, associate pastor of Catonsville United Methodist Church. "There are a lot of reasons why, on this Frederick Road corridor, we are so stable."

The meeting is scheduled to take place from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the cafeteria of Hillcrest Elementary School, 1500 Frederick Road. It will be Smith's fourth roundtable. During his election campaign in 2002, he proposed the events as a way for him to hear first-hand about community concerns and to discuss ways to address them. Next month, he plans to visit Essex and Middle River.

Bruce VanDervort, executive director of the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce, said the downtown business community is healthy -- a new development on Frederick Road will bring in offices and restaurants to complement the area's music stores and other specialty shops.

Two streetscape projects, one in the Paradise area and the other on Route 40, were put on hold because of the state's budget troubles, but VanDervort said he is hoping Smith's effort to revitalize older communities can help make Catonsville's business districts into popular destinations.

"Catonsville is a perfect place for those things to happen," VanDervort said. "A little imagination and a little investment from developers and community support -- if you have all three of those, we can make a good community even better."

Robbi Farschman, the southwest area coordinator for the county's Office of Community Conservation, said that in preparation meetings for the round- table, participants said they hoped to discuss ways to maintain the quality of schools and keep the religious community involved in civic affairs.

Panel members praised the diversity of the area, which has large African-American and Asian populations, but said they would like to encourage more interaction between ethnic groups, Farschman said.

Other major issues that are likely to be discussed tonight include traffic calming and affordable housing. Home prices have skyrocketed in the area in recent years, which is both good and bad, Farschman said.

"Younger families probably have a great deal of difficulty being able to purchase a house, especially if you're talking south of Route 40," she said.

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