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Goodwill offers jobs, is hunting property

The Baltimore Sun

The idea, born as leaders at Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake brainstormed ways to expand training programs, was simplicity itself: Let's go where we're really needed.

Translating inspiration into action has proved trickier than anyone expected.

It's not that Goodwill couldn't figure out where to go. It quickly settled on ZIP code 21223, a high-crime, low-employment swath of Southwest Baltimore that's largely south of U.S. 40.

It's not that Goodwill couldn't decide what to do. The nonprofit resolved to bring a fairly modest number of jobs that would serve as a training ground for local youths, who could then move on to other employment.

And Goodwill has money set aside to make this happen, so that wasn't the problem, either.

It's as frustratingly simple as this: In the two years since it settled on this new course, Goodwill hasn't been able to find suitable property to lease or buy there, even though there are vacancies in the area. Certainly not enough space for the 25-worker operations complex it wants to relocate from Anne Arundel County, which would require several acres; neither for an outlet center beside it with 10 employees. Not even for a small retail store.

Even in a neighborhood where many buildings are too decrepit to rehab, the group keeps running into owners who are convinced that big things are sure to happen soon, that values will rise if they hold on, because the University of Maryland at Baltimore is building a biotech park straddling 21223 and the next ZIP code.

"You want to do some things to drive up the economy, but it's just - it's all blocked," said Marge Thomas, Goodwill's president and chief executive. "We haven't made nearly the progress we thought we might."

Still, the Baltimore-based group, which trains the unemployed across the region, is far from giving up.

It now plans, as soon as zoning approvals come through, to open a boutique version of its familiar retail store in a parking garage for the biotech park. The garage is really in the 21201 ZIP, but it is so close that Thomas decided it was the best choice to get things moving. The store will have four to six teenage trainees getting hands-on retail experience for 20 hours a week.

A Goodwill trainer has begun coordinating job-readiness activities for youth in the area, helping students figure out how to follow interests to careers.

Also, the nonprofit says it will appeal to the city to help find space for the outlet and operations center, which would come with truck-driving jobs. Thomas said she expects to spend $3 million to $4 million on land and either an existing building or new construction.

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm, isn't surprised that Goodwill is struggling to get space larger than a rowhouse in the densely built neighborhood. "We'd be glad to try to help," he said.

Of all the things the area needs, jobs top the list, said Brendan Walsh. He and his wife, Willa Bickham, have run Viva House, a Baltimore Catholic Worker "house of hospitality," for almost 40 years there. The depressing changes they have seen all around the soup kitchen since they opened it have gone hand in hand with the loss of manufacturing work, once the lifeblood of so many city neighborhoods.

"If there was no drug trade," said Walsh, who lives at Viva House, "there wouldn't be an economy."

Fewer than half of Southwest Baltimore's working-age residents had a job in 2000. The neighborhood's violent crime rate was more than 40 percent higher than the city's in 2005 - the most recent figures from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore. The juvenile arrest rate for drug-related offenses was much higher, too.

Nearly one in four Southwest residential properties was considered abandoned that year, the alliance said. The same was true of one in six commercial properties. Even in a city with many vacancies, that's unusual.

Walsh, giving a tour of the neighborhood, passed by clusters of police cars with lights flashing as he drove up and down the streets. Over and over, he pointed out shuttered shops and crumbling rowhouses that he calls "abandominiums." Thousands of residents moved out in the 1990s.

"Look at this," he said on Baltimore Street. "It's just all boarded up."

Even so, home prices have risen sharply in recent years. People say things are improving. Stand at the eastern edge of the ZIP code, overlooking the biotech park, and it's easy to see why investors and residents alike expect ripple effects.

"All the riffraff have been moving out," said resident Robert Davis, 34, taking a stroll with 23- year-old Tiffany Speight and their 1-year-old daughter. "You see better housing opportunities."

They like the area. It's near downtown, not far from major highways, "close to everything," Speight said. There's the historic Hollins Market, the interesting architecture of Union Square.

But she was glad to hear of a plan to bring in more jobs.

"It needs it," said Speight, who is self-employed.

The rising home prices, meanwhile, are pushing up rents, driving some residents out of the neighborhood, said Stacy A. Smith, chief executive of Communities Organized to Improve Life Inc., a Southwest Baltimore umbrella group known as COIL. Eight years ago, dilapidated homes sold for $5,000 or $7,000, she said. "Now you have the shells going from $70,000 to $125,000."

She has noticed renovated homes on the market for as much as $400,000. Walsh thinks it's wishful thinking on the part of investors, but sales prices are indeed up.

"Housing is a major, major, major issue for our families," Smith said.

That's why she's excited about Goodwill's jobs, particularly the truck driving. Truckers can make good money. That sort of work, she said, would be a real alternative to the lure of dealing drugs.

"Our youth need jobs," said Smith, whose organization agreed to team up with Goodwill.

Goodwill's April Ferguson, hired for the project, has been working directly with youth, borrowing space at a local school and an after-school organization once a week. Her charges at Francis M. Wood Alternative High School are assembling resumes. Less than a quarter of the teens in the small group presently have a job or have work experience.

"The first step to making life changes is setting clear, identifiable goals," she told them.

Robert D. Ballard Sr., whose 17-year-old son is one of Ferguson's most enthusiastic participants, said he hopes the ninth-grader will settle on a career.

"I just want the best for him," said Ballard, an electrician who lived in the neighborhood for years and does rehab work there on weekends. "Everybody's a target just walking the street. I told him, 'You don't want to be that sort of person.'"

Goodwill board member Kevin Byrne said he feels for the families trying to make the best of it.

So much attention has been focused elsewhere - on East Baltimore, on Reservoir Hill, on the waterfront - that Southwest Baltimore seemed "lost in the shuffle," he said, even with Bon Secours Hospital and its foundation doing good works there. Byrne, a Baltimore Ravens executive, said he hopes that other nonprofits and businesses will follow in Goodwill's wake.

It's not easy to justify the economics of a business in a struggling area, even if it is run by a nonprofit. Goodwill's retail sales account for 60 percent of its $33 million budget - critical at a time when government grants are hard to come by.

Its 22 stores in the Baltimore region and Eastern Shore, which sell donated goods, can be found in such high-income areas as Annapolis as well as in communities in more obvious need of bargains.

"We try to run the retail part like a regular business," said Doug Hiob, Goodwill's senior vice president of retail operations.

The goal for the store planned at Baltimore and Poppleton streets is modest: break even. A generation ago, Goodwill had a location in the 1900 block of W. Pratt St. but closed it because business was too slow, Hiob said.

"It is a delicate balance," said Goodwill Chairman Gary N. Geisel, chief executive of Provident Bankshares Corp. "Certainly, stores that are successful are all about the revenue, and that's a good thing. But it's also about the mission. And shouldn't we be looking for ways to take our mission to the areas of Baltimore where the needs are greatest?"

jamie.smith.hopkins@baltsun.com

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