Several months ago, I was asked if I would entertain a possible visit from President Donald Trump and several members of his cabinet to announce plans for the federal Opportunity Zones. The program provides incentives to developers to invest in certain distressed neighborhoods, including Baltimore’s Broadway East, home to my church and our Mary Harvin Transformation Community Development Corporation, which had several real estate projects in the planning stages at the time (and still does).
My immediate response was that we would welcome the president to use us as his backdrop if he were also willing to consider offering additional federal funding to our city that would build on and enhance any Opportunity Zone funding. I even encouraged that such funds be allocated to the mayor’s Neighborhood Impact Investment funding program, Harbor Bank of Maryland, Associated Black Charities and the Mary Harvin Transformation CDC in order to bridge capital gaps of shovel ready projects.
My request was met with a couple of meetings and community tours with White House staff and the chance to present the East Baltimore Revitalization Plan, developed by the Southern Baptist Church, where I’m the pastor. This led to a meeting with Jared Kushner in his office in the West Wing. I found him to be very engaged, inquisitive, smart, sensitive and supportive to our community development efforts. He actually said to me that he was surprised — and highly impressed — that we had gotten so far in development and that we were answering the right questions when it comes to sustainable community development with the mantra of restoring people as we rebuild properties.
In the meeting, I was accompanied by Arnold Williams, past chair of Baltimore Development Corporation; Bill Streuver of Cross Street Partners; and Adam Gross of Ayers, Saint, Gross architectural firm. We shared with Mr. Kushner the many invaluable development projects happening in our community, such as: the renovation of the Hoen Lithograph Building, Humanim’s efforts to rebuild parts of the city and create jobs, the Baltimore Food Hub campus of food-related businesses under development, the expansions of the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum and Roberta’s House, and many other projects. Each needs federal funding in addition to any Opportunity Zone investment to make a transformative difference in an underserved community of East Baltimore.
Mr. Kushner asked how the administration could help and whether we were looking just for a visit from one of the cabinet secretaries. I indicated the collective projects needed at least $200 million and a visit by the president to discuss and implement an agenda that was bigger than personal prejudices and partisan politics. Mr. Kushner followed by sending a handwritten note to my home stating how impressed he was with my writings, our master plan and progress, and that he wanted to do all he could to make our dreams a reality.
While our inner city communities’ needs predate this administration, that does not mean they shouldn’t receive critical support from this administration. Helping us can be a win, win, win for our cities, our communities and the Trump administration. It is not lost on me that Mr. Trump’s support within the African-American community is almost non-existent, but our impoverished and distressed communities cannot wait for an administration people like to go after resources and investments that could not only revitalize our city, but memorialize it as a model of hope to urban cities across America. I believe that investing in Baltimore would be a great start in the right direction for this administration.
Unfortunately, the presidential visit was canceled and the announcement venue changed to the White House. I consider this a missed opportunity to nationally showcase and spotlight Baltimore. For our city to have the opportunity to have a national spotlight for an urban revitalization strategy through Opportunity Zone investments was major. Having the president actually visit a distressed community and hold a robust and challenging conversation with formidable faith, business and community leaders about coordinating and leveraging federal funding and bolstering Opportunity Zone investment toward sustainable development would be a big deal. Having the president make a proclamation promoting Baltimore as a focus for federal funding for urban revitalization would be a big deal. Having the president to visit a church to roll out an agenda that required mutual accountability and collaboration would be a big deal.
That was my vision, and it didn’t change when the venue did. I readily accepted the invitation to attend the roundtable discussion and executive order signing at the White House. I could not allow a conversation about resourcing urban and distressed communities there to take place without a voice and a vision from an urban and distressed community of our city. And I must say that the discussion was robust, substantive and sensitive to the needs and concerns of urban communities. We made certain Baltimore was front and center for the administration’s agenda for Opportunity Zones.
And in the days, months and weeks ahead, I look forward to continuing the conversations, innovations and actualization of federal funding and Opportunity Zone investment in Baltimore. I remain prayerful, optimistic, persistent and hopeful that we will make the bold decisions as a city and nation to fix the broken and dilapidated communities of our country. Though an opportunity to view Baltimore was missed, the opportunity to make it a leader in inner city community revitalization is still going strong.
Donte' L. Hickman is pastor of Southern Baptist Church in Baltimore City, Harford and Howard counties. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.