Thwarted last year by community opposition and the city zoning board from opening a multipurpose services center across the street from its East Baltimore sanctuary, Southern Baptist Church is ready to try again at a new location down the street - this time with the help of a powerful state senator who is also a member of its congregation.
State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, president pro tem of the General Assembly's upper chamber and a member of the church for more than three decades, is the sponsor of a state bond bill to help Southern Baptist create the Mary Harvin Transformation Center, which would provide counseling to AIDS patients and their families as well as other services.
The legislation, which provides for up to $600,000 in funds to be matched by the center, is scheduled for a hearing today along with dozens of other bond bills supporting projects around the state, including hospitals, museums and parks and recreation centers.
An East Baltimore Democrat whose district includes the church and the proposed center, McFadden said he introduced the legislation at the request of Southern Baptist's pastor, the Rev. Donte L. Hickman Sr.
"He asked me to sit down and listen and if possible help where I could," McFadden said.
McFadden said he considered the project a "worthwhile" one for the area near the old American Brewery, which is one of the most distressed sections of the city and was the subject of a two-part series in The Sun last year titled "A Neighborhood Abandoned."
The vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation subcommittee that will hear the bills, McFadden said he will indicate at the hearing that he is a member of Southern Baptist but that he saw no problems with his sponsorship of the legislation.
"I don't see that as a conflict," he said. "There are no profits coming to me and no ethical violations as far as I'm concerned."
One leading ethics expert agrees with that assessment.
"If it's nonsectarian, going to serve the people of the general community, it seems to be there's no conflict of interest," said Fred Guy, director of the University of Baltimore's Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics. "If there is disclosure, we just have to say, 'Good for you.'"
Since 2000, Southern Baptist has contributed $1,475 to McFadden's campaign treasury. The senator, one of several Maryland politicians to receive political donations from churches, agreed last year to return the contributions - which are prohibited under IRS regulation.
Hickman did not return two telephone messages left at the church, nor did he respond to a faxed letter sent last week seeking comment on the church's plans for the center.
But McFadden and community leaders who have been given a quick verbal synopsis of Southern Baptist's plans say the 2,000-member church intends to include at the center day care and early childhood education services, as well as AIDS counseling. The center, named for one of the church's founding members, will be built on the west side of the 1600 block of N. Chester St. near Federal Street, they say.
The stretch includes a small convenience store and a string of empty lots and vacant buildings, most of them owned by Southern Baptist. The largest of the buildings is a former post office that became an auto supply store, which the church bought in the mid-1990s for $150,000.
Hickman, a member of the board that oversees the city's public housing complexes, approached housing officials late last year about acquiring more properties in the block and was told he needed to come up with a community-supported plan, said city housing spokesman David Tillman.
Eric Booker, a founder of the Washington Wolfe Gateway Community Association, said his organization remains wary.
"Until we understand a little more about what the agenda is going to be, we're just cautious," he said.
Last November, Booker was one of a number of residents and leaders who appeared at a hearing before the city's zoning board to oppose plans to locate the center at a rowhouse that the church had renovated at the corner of East Lanvale Street and North Chester Street.
After listening to residents of the 2000 block of E. Lanvale St. voice concerns that the center would change the character of the attractive residential block they had worked so hard to maintain despite the blight that surrounded it, the board voted unanimously to reject the church's appeal for a zoning change that would have allowed the center to open.
Though the proposed new site of the center is less than a block away, Booker said he did not believe it required a zoning change.
Under the bill scheduled for a hearing today at 10 a.m., introduced by McFadden on Feb. 1, the state money can be used for the "acquisition, planning, design, construction and reconstruction" of the center. The center would have seven years to spend the money.
A companion bill in the House, sponsored by seven members of the city's delegation and introduced last week, is scheduled for a hearing today at 1 p.m.