Baltimore officials approved using $1.25 million Wednesday to help turn a dilapidated former movie theater on Pulaski Highway into a hub for the city’s immigrant community, a project its backers say will help revitalize a neighborhood that is increasingly attracting Latino families priced out of other areas.
Immigrant rights group and social services organization CASA de Maryland is in the midst of construction at the center, which will be housed in the old Belnord Theater, and hopes to open it early next year.
The center will allow CASA to serve thousands more people a year, and Elizabeth Alex, a regional director at the organization, said the project symbolizes the growth of the immigrant community in Baltimore.
“This is a way for Baltimore’s Latino and immigrant communities to feel proud that they have a home here in Baltimore and that they’re a valued part of our community,” Alex said.
The city’s Board of Estimates approved the funding at a meeting Wednesday. The money will be in the form of a forgivable loan and is part of a patchwork of financing for the estimated $13 million cost of revitalizing the old cinema house.
Catalina Rodriguez-Lima, an adviser to Mayor Catherine Pugh on immigrant affairs, said the money demonstrates city leaders’ support for Baltimore’s Latino community.
“It gets beyond the messaging of a city being a welcoming city and provides a concrete example of our commitment to this population,” Rodriguez said.
The board vote is also the latest example of the city providing support to the immigrant community in the face of a more hostile federal government led by President Donald Trump. The city has paid for lawyers to represent people in immigration cases and gave its backing to an alternative identification card administered by the Catholic Church.
The city also has filed or joined lawsuits challenging changes the federal government has made to immigration rules.
“Given the national political climate, cities have become crucial in not just protecting their citizens, but making citizens and residents feel valued,” Rodriguez said.
As much as Baltimore’s Latino community is becoming better established, Councilman Zeke Cohen, whose Southeast Baltimore district is home to many of the city’s immigrant residents, said it still needs support. On Wednesday, Cohen said he met with police and prosecutors about the victimization of immigrants who are seen as unlikely to cooperate with authorities to solve crimes.
“The Latino community has been a great blessing, just like all of the immigrant communities we’ve had in Baltimore but they still have a unique set of challenges right now,” Cohen said.
The plan for the new CASA center is to allow the organization to expand the help it offers people facing those challenges, almost tripling its capacity to reach 11,000 people a year. Alex said the aim is to continue the offerings CASA has at an existing center on East Fayette Street — an after-school program, a legal clinic and education programs — while branching out into new kinds of job training. The center will have two large labs for teaching medical and construction skills.
“We’re super excited to be able to add that whole menu of education and services to the community,” Alex said.
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To create the center, CASA is overhauling the old Belnord Theater, which CASA said was one of the few in the city that was never racially segregated. It stands near the Patterson Park branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and across the street from a wedge-shaped park known as Library Square. The building dates back nearly a century, but movies haven’t been shown there for decades. It was used most recently as a budget furniture store.
Alex said CASA began outgrowing its Fayette Street space about four years ago and started looking for somewhere to expand. The group bought the theater in 2015 and began raising money to pay for the renovations. It broke ground in October on the project.
Part of the money to pay for the CASA center is coming in the form of state historic tax credits and the organization has agreed to restore some of the building’s features from when it was a theater. More funding is coming from other tax credit programs and a $2.3 million grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.
Alex said the theater was an attractive site because it is in an area where immigrant families are moving as neighborhoods such as Fells Point and Highlandtown become more expensive. At William Paca Elementary School, next to the theater, enrollment of Hispanic students has more than doubled in the past five years.
Cohen said that while some families are moving in the face of rising housing costs, Latino residents are also increasingly interested in buying homes, sending them looking for neighborhoods with good schools.
“It’s both dynamics,” he said.