Frustration mounts in Park Heights over racetrack, slots funds
By By Luke Broadwater and The Baltimore Sun
Aug 03, 2012 at 8:59 PM
At the Park Heights Barber Shop, the frustration is palpable.
While the neighborhood gets funding aimed at revitalization from a state program that directs money to communities around racetracks, it has failed to reverse a decades-long decline. The homicide rate is double the city average; the number of vacant houses is four times the average.
Last year, as slot-machine proceeds began to flow into state coffers, Park Heights residents hoped the neighborhood's $2 million cut would be enough to make a difference.
But as casinos got off to a slow start, the state delivered only about a quarter of the slots money it initially pledged — and eliminated the other funding for the community near Pimlico Race Course in a round of belt-tightening.
Those decisions left city leaders and community activists — groups often at odds — unified in their dissatisfaction.
"We've been robbed," said barbershop customer Kevin Oliver, 47, who grew up in Park Heights. "That money should be going to rehabbing all those vacant houses."
At Park Heights Renaissance Inc., a nonprofit development corporation created to revitalize the neighborhood, CEO Julius Colon says the cuts forced him to lay off one worker, eliminate another position and reduce community cleanups and festivals.
"When I took the job, people told me, 'You have nothing to worry about. You have racetrack and slots funds,' '' Colon says. "And then all of the sudden, no funds. Every year becomes a very tough task. I have to hustle to find money."
Members of thePark Heights Presidential Council, a community organization that doesn't get money from slots or the racetrack fund, voted this week to hire an attorney to press city officials to show how they used the funds in the past.
The state has directed money to neighborhoods around horse-racing venues to help them cope with increased traffic and other impacts. When the General Assembly authorized slot-machine gambling, some communities were promised part of those proceeds, as well.
Down the road from the barbershop, Park Heights resident Loyd Roberts, 74, sits on his front porch. The retired W.R. Grace worker has lived here for more than three decades. The only recent improvement he's noticed was the groundbreaking for a new Cal Ripken Sr. sports field and 7-acre park, for which the city demolished 41 blighted houses. The project was not paid for with slots or racetrack funds.
Otherwise, Roberts says, he has just watched the vacant houses multiply.
"They must be using the money on the other side of the neighborhood," he said.
Once a bustling middle-class neighborhood, Park Heights has been in decline since the 1960s. But perhaps no other Baltimore neighborhood has received more pledges of revitalization.
The city founded a development corporation whose sole purpose is to revitalize the area. And in 2006, officials unveiled drawings of picturesque storefronts and renovated homes as part of a master plan to redevelop the 1,500-acre neighborhood.
The size of the planned redevelopment is the largest in the state, Colon says, but they are still just getting started.
Park Heights also is the only Baltimore neighborhood that receives dedicated funding from the state racetrack fund. For years, the state provided the neighborhood with an average of about $550,000 annually in racetrack impact funds, before discontinuing that funding this year.
A year ago, the state also pledged about $2 million more to Park Heights from slots impact funds. City officials met with residents and promised to use the money to help build CC Jackson Park, where Ripken's field will be located, and to fund youth programs and improve recreation centers.
But earlier this year, residents learned they would receive only $450,000.
"When numbers came out, there was a realization that the numbers would be much less," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore City Democrat. He said the initial numbers given to residents were estimates and were revised downward when slots revenue was lower than anticipated.
"Nobody has misspent the money or used it to some other purpose," Rosenberg said, answering some residents' pointed questions about what happened to the money.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has ordered funds to be reallocated to Park Heights to cover the slots funding shortfall. And next year, Rosenberg said, Park Heights should expect $4 million in slots funds, now that Maryland Live casino is operating in Anne Arundel County.
But city officials say they are holding off on making promises to the community about specific projects until they have the money in hand.
"We learned a lesson," said Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake. "Going forward, we changed the budgeting process so it will be less volatile."
He added thataproposal to expand gambling by adding a sixth casino in Prince George's County and allowing table gamescould produce more revenue for Park Heights. The General Assembly will consider the proposal in a special session next week.
"The more successful the statewide slots program is, the more revenue will be available for Park Heights," O'Doherty said.
But community members continue to ask tough questions about the funding.
"Our biggest question is: Where is all this money going?" said Will J. Hanna II, chairman of the Park Heights Presidential Council.
Outside James D. Gross Recreation Center — which might close this year if city officials can't find a private entity to operate it — Hanna says the money could be better spent on the center. He's critical of the development corporation and Colon, saying he's not earning his $150,000 salary. According to tax documents, the group spends about half its revenue on salaries and benefits.
"If this money is coming through this community, and no one is getting any benefit, what are we doing?" Hanna asks.
City officials say they've provided Hanna with documentation after receiving an open-recordsrequest. But they do not have all records he requested, as some date back decades. They say a total of $13 million has been used for various projects since the late 1980s, including renovating and building homes.
Colon rejects the notion that his organization isn't using money wisely and spending too much on salaries. He says only $29,000 of the slots funds were earmarked for an employee's salary, and points to a litany of achievements amid state cutbacks, including conducting foreclosure counseling, creating a vegetable garden and providing rehabilitation loans to investors. A groundbreaking is planned for 60 units of senior citizen housing this fall, Colon says.
At the barbershop, Hanna discusses the issue with residents who agree that more needs to be done for Park Heights.
"$13 million?" says barber Maurice Braxton, 61, who has cut hair for 38 years. "I ain't seen 13 dollars."
As resident Annsavon Armstead, 42, looks outside the shop at a trash-filled street, she says the neighborhood needs more visible signs of improvement. Everywhere she looks, something is dirty, broken or abandoned.
"Where's the money been going?" she asks, surveying the scene. "I want to see the money."
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