Pastor who invited Trump to Baltimore hopes president's visit will showcase city as model for revitalization

The pastor of an East Baltimore church invited President Donald Trump for what will be his first trip to the city since taking office, hoping to showcase Baltimore as a model for urban revitalization through federal "opportunity zones" and other programs.

Trump is expected to meet Wednesday with the Rev. Donte L. Hickman, pastor of the 4,000-member Southern Baptist Church, and other clergy and elected officials at the church in the Broadway East neighborhood, Hickman said Saturday. Details of the agenda and who will attend are being worked out, he said.

The White House announced Friday that Trump will visit Baltimore to promote so-called opportunity zones, a Republican-backed tax law designed to direct investment capital into struggling communities by offering a huge new tax break. Trump will attend a roundtable with local leaders, the White House said.

Hickman, whose 88-year-old church takes on community revitalization projects in East Baltimore, said he hopes a presidential visit will shine a light on the need for investment and the success of recent public-private and faith-based projects. Baltimore can lead the way nationally, he believes, in encouraging opportunity zone investment in distressed neighborhoods.

“It’s major,” Hickman said of the White House accepting the invitation. “It’s a major opportunity for Baltimore to be a leader and model to urban centers across the country. … We can show the country that it is possible to transform urban centers without gentrification.”

For Baltimore, he said, “This is something that really makes sense, because we’re ready to go.”

That’s because many of the city’s 42 zones include swaths already scheduled or targeted for redevelopment, such as Poppleton, Port Covington, Perkins Homes and Park Heights. Zones exist downtown and in impoverished areas of East, West and South Baltimore. Anyone who uses profits from another investment to invest in real estate or businesses in designated zones could defer and reduce their capital gains tax, and any profits from the opportunity zone investment would be tax free as long as it is held for 10 years. The idea has drawn support from Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said Saturday she was notified by the White House that Trump would visit the city, but “they have not given us an agenda.”

She said she began working to identify areas of the city to include in the opportunity zones program after it was passed as part of tax reform a year ago. The city hired an opportunity zone coordinator in October.

FAQ: How will the federal 'opportunity zones' tax incentives work in Maryland? »

Pugh said she expects the redevelopment tool and the Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund she created earlier this year will work together to pump money into areas struggling with disinvestment for decades. Representatives of several large projects in the city also have said they expect a boost from the new zones, including developers of a part of Port Covington slated for a cybersecurity hub and of an 88-acre urban renewal project near Johns Hopkins medical campus in East Baltimore.

The mayor said she had met briefly with Trump in December 2016, at the annual Army-Navy football game, when she handed him a letter asking for federal help with the city’s aging infrastructure.

Asked about Trump’s planned visit, she said, “If the president is coming to unleash resources that help us fix the water pipe system, that would be welcome to Baltimore. ... If it’s about releasing those resources that the city needs for infrastructure dollars, that would be helpful to the city.”

U.S. Treasury officials have estimated the opportunity zone program will result in an infusion of $100 billion of private capital in regions with an average poverty rate of more than 32 percent. But critics believe the costs will outweigh the benefits, becoming a windfall for the wealthy or forcing poor residents out of their neighborhoods.

Hickman, though, said he sees the incentive as an effective way to spur development of affordable housing, grocery stores and health centers and improve public safety, education and workforce development in Broadway East — in an opportunity zone where about a dozen development projects are planned or underway — and elsewhere in the city.

Southern Baptist has worked through a community development corporation with partners on projects such as affordable housing for seniors and a health and wellness center. One church project, the Mary Harvin Transformation Center senior housing and job training center, was nearly halfway built in 2015 when it was destroyed by fire during the riots after Freddie Gray’s death. Hickman had worked for five years on the center, made possible partly through tax credits and favorable loan packages. He vowed to start over and the center was later completed.

Hickman, pastor since 2002 of a church that also has Aberdeen and Ellicott City locations, said he reached out to the Trump administration a couple of months ago.

“We engaged the administration with what we’re doing in an opportunity zone and invited him to come and see how Baltimore could really benefit from his encouragement and promotion of it,” he said. “Baltimore has been dealing with dilapidated communities, abandoned and vacant properties from the uprising [after Gray’s death] and community violence and poverty for decades. And I believe this investment could really turn our city around.”

When asked whether he was concerned that Trump’s visit could spark a backlash to the president or his policies, Hickman said he refuses to focus on “distractions or personal prejudices and partisan politics.”

“My focus is on how we can help our city rebuild itself,” he said.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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