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Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: A company’s donation makes room — lots of room — for a West Baltimore dream | COMMENTARY

The Rev. Rodney Hudson knew what he wanted. He wanted the asphalt lot at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Baker Street in West Baltimore. If he could acquire that empty space from the company that owned it, Hudson would have the launchpad for his dream.

The pastor of Ames United Methodist Church, a block away, Hudson had already acquired two large, grassy parcels along Baker Street for the Resurrection Sandtown Project, a faith-based mission to redevelop a long-neglected stretch of West Baltimore.

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The grassy lots, urban pastureland where rowhouses once stood, ran from North Carey Street to the asphalt lot owned by Northeastern Supply, a seller of plumbing, heating and air conditioning products. The asphalt lot adjoined Northeastern’s huge distribution center, a former kosher bakery fronting on Pennsylvania Avenue, and a large warehouse behind it.

But all Hudson wanted was the asphalt lot.

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The Book of Exodus says, “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s house,” but there’s no admonition against coveting thy neighbor’s asphalt.

Getting that corner lot would complete a block-long rectangle, and Hudson would have the room he needed for his dream — a community center, a place that might provide day care, after-school activities, offices and maybe space for retailers, maybe job training in the skilled trades. Anything was possible, Hudson believed, but Resurrection Sandtown needed to get the land first.

So Van Beall wrote a letter to Northeastern Supply.

Beall does not live in Sandtown, as Hudson does. He’s a fellow Methodist, but Beall’s church is in Howard County, Glen Mar United Methodist in Ellicott City. About a decade ago, the suburban church established a relationship with Ames to “serve together on a variety of community projects for God’s glory.” Beall, an Army veteran and retired Department of Defense employee, is a trustee of Ames, and you might say he serves as Hudson’s point man on land acquisition.

So he wrote to Northeastern Supply, specifically the Cook family that owns it — Steve Cook, the CEO, and his daughter, Stephanie — to ask about the asphalt lot.

Beall says he wrote the letter in 2018 and received no response. He and Hudson assumed Northeastern Supply had no interest in selling off a piece of its large footprint in Sandtown.

It’s a big company, with headquarters on Pulaski Highway in Rosedale, and 38 distribution branches in five states. The company has been around since 1945, and in the Cook family since the early 1970s.

Northeastern moved into the Pennsylvania Avenue location, the former Pariser Bakery, about 25 years ago. The branch was profitable, Steve Cook says; the company had no plan to leave the site.

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Until last year.

After things started to settle down from the pandemic, the Cooks remembered the inquiry from Beall and Resurrection Sandtown. They found the letter and called Beall and Hudson for a meeting.

Last October, Stephanie Cook met with the pastor, his trustee and their architect, Kevin Day, in a conference room at Northeastern Supply’s main office.

Hudson didn’t know what to expect. “I was going to offer them $500 for the [asphalt] lot,” he says.

But Stephanie Cook surprised him.

“She said they were going to give us the lot,” Hudson says.

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And the surprise didn’t end there.

Stephanie Cook listened closely to Hudson and Beall as they described Resurrection Sandtown’s mission — to make something new and useful from land abandoned during the long, dreary flight of families from the city over many decades. The neighborhood needs services. It needs jobs. It needs new housing.

Hudson’s church, Ames United Methodist, has fallen into disrepair and is no longer safe for services. The congregation moved to Metropolitan United Methodist Church, where Hudson also serves as pastor. Poor, old Ames is to be demolished, but Resurrection Sandtown hopes to build housing for senior citizens in its place.

It’s all part of the big dream.

Stephanie Cook was so impressed that she left the meeting to have a chat with her father. She returned to the conference room with some news.

“She said they wanted to give us the whole thing, the buildings and all,” Hudson says. “It didn’t sink in right away.”

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“We weren’t sure what she’d just said,” says Beall.

But, in another moment, it became clear: The Cook family would donate not only the asphalt lot, but the huge building on Pennsylvania Avenue and the warehouse behind it to Ames Memorial United Methodist Church for Resurrection Sandtown.

Suddenly, the launchpad for Hudson’s dream doubled in size. The donation amounted to half a large city block.

The announcement shocked Hudson and Beall. Hudson started crying and left the room.

“Stephanie just blew us away,” he says.

The Cooks decided that the property donation to Resurrection Sandtown could push the project along in a major way and eventually have a significant effect on life in West Baltimore. They would close their Pennsylvania Avenue operation and move its six employees to other branches.

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“Baltimore needs help, West Baltimore needs real help,” says Steve Cook. “I thought, ‘you know what? Even though we’re making some money there, I’m at a point in life, our family is, where I can make a much larger difference [with the property donation] than by making a couple of dollars operating one of our stores.’”

It was Hudson’s passion for the project that most impressed the Cooks. “This gentleman,” says Steve Cook, “had such a vision. He had his act together. He knew what he wanted.”


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