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EBDI pledges more transparency

Officials of East Baltimore Development Inc. promised a City Council committee Wednesday evening that they would operate with a renewed sense of transparency and communication about the finances and progress in economic development and new home construction as part of the $1.8 billion redevelopment project on 88 acres in Middle East.

But City Council members chided EBDI’s top leaders, board chairman Douglas W. Nelson and CEO Christopher Shea, after their testimony for failing to supply a complete record of financial and job data the council members had requested since the hearing was scheduled Feb. 4

“At this point, it’s very hard for us to feel comfortable,” said Councilman Carl Stokes, who called the meeting as chairman of the Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee, after Shea narrated a slide show bristling with photographs, charts and statistics.

“You’ve got to tell us the truth,” he admonished Shea. “You only get one shot at it. We have to drill down if there’s a problem.”

Watch video from the EBDI hearing at City Hall

Stokes’ comments also followed a presentation by EBDI official Cheryl Washington on the number of jobs created by the EBDI project. The presentation did not specify how many jobs were temporary, permanent or went to East Baltimore residents.

“It’s the transparency issue we have a problem with,” Stokes said. “You don’t break down the jobs. They are not all permanent, they are not all in the [EBDI] footprint, and not all new jobs.”

His comments drew applause from some in the City Council chamber who had been displaced from their homes by the redevelopment project.

Later, after expressing dissatisfaction with the number of EBDI contracts awarded to African-American businesses in East Baltimore, Stokes told EBDI officials, “We are determined we will not have this hearing again with these numbers.”

The City Council voted unanimously Feb. 7 to conduct last night’s hearing just days after The Daily Record published a five-part series detailing how the nation’s largest urban redevelopment project, just north of Johns Hopkins Hospital, is beset by problems and lagging far behind schedule in terms of building new housing, creating jobs and attracting biotech development.

EBDI is the nonprofit created by the city and Johns Hopkins University in 2002 to spearhead the project. To make room for the new development, EBDI relocated 732 households from the largely blighted African-American community known as Middle East.

Shea said that despite rugged economic conditions, the nonprofit had made strides with development of the John G. Rangos Sr. biotech building, construction of a residential tower for Johns Hopkins University graduate students, and planning of a parking garage.

But he also cited the 450 jobs in the Rangos building as an example of how EBDI could have done better.

“They are all scientists and none of them is from East Baltimore,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do in this regard.”

That prompted Councilman Warren Branch, whose district encompasses most of the EBDI footprint, to scoff at the EBDI officials.

“Let’s face it, folks in East Baltimore — there shouldn’t be no one out there on the corner looking for jobs. There’s no reason for the low numbers I’m hearing tonight, Branch said. “If we fill those jobs with the amount of money we’re talking about here for the jobs, we’d be able to fill those homes with people from East Baltimore who would use the money” to buy the new houses.

Former Middle East resident Verona Blackston, who was relocated as part of the redevelopment project, said she is on the verge of bankruptcy in her new home because of higher living costs and higher property taxes.

“I could have stayed on Ashland Avenue till the cows came home,” she testified. “But they rushed me out so fast I left about $600 in the wood blinds upstairs. I’m just saying. I’m not ashamed, but you need to at least monitor people young and old. I’m an old lady and I can’t go any place and get a job.”

Shea and Nelson both said EBDI remains committed to the original goals of the massive redevelopment project, now entering its second decade.

Both said planning for new life sciences facilities is continuing. Both promised to provide affordable housing for any former Middle East resident who wants to return to the community. Both said a planned school should be a linchpin for the new community.

Both also said that while EBDI has accomplished much, there was still much left to be done.

Nelson, former CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which has invested $63.5 million in the project, admitted that mistakes had been made by EBDI.

“We have to learn to communicate better,” Nelson said. “To be more transparent in talking to all audiences about our finances. I promise you we will do that. We must also do better in our economic inclusion opportunities. We must do even better and we will do better.

“We must do a better job in engaging and communicating with residents. We need to find ways of supporting community organizations that give clear and consistent voices to residents.”

Donald Gresham, a community activist who is relocating to a new house at the EBDI site, said he has been discouraged by a lack of communication between EBDI and the residents.

“Everything the residents were given, we fought for,” Gresham said.

He compared the manner in which EBDI treated residents to that of a plantation and said the EBDI project was “all about Hopkins.”

Stokes asked the audience if any representatives of Johns Hopkins were present at the hearing. No one came forward.

“I am disappointed that Hopkins is not at the table,” Stokes said.

Lloyd Williams, an East Baltimore developer whose office is at 1101 N. Gay St., implored EBDI and its master developer, Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership, to “go a little further and think outside of the box” in how they approach minority companies at the project. Williams said he has hired workers from the EBDI community to help him on one redevelopment project.

“And the beauty of the job was you’d see men from East Baltimore wake up and walk over to work at the site,” Williams said. “They would take those paychecks back home and that little bit of money meant a lot. I hope we have a true spirit of economic inclusion and opportunity.”

Ava Warren, another resident who was relocated from the site, said she had received only $70,000 from EBDI for a new house. Warren, a Hopkins employee, said she pleaded with EBDI to let her remain at the site near her work. But she was denied.

“It took me over five years to get my house,” she told the council members. “They told me that in order to get the $150,000 [in relocation costs], I would have to relocate. … You gave me nothing but heartache,” she said, adding that she had to take out a loan from her job to make repairs to her new home, for which she pays $750 each month.

“Phase I was not easy,” she said, of the first half of the project. “It was a disgrace. By the grace of God I am OK. By the grace of God I will be OK.”

Nia Redmond, the only resident member of the EBDI board, addressed the committee with a sign saying “Let My People Go” taped to her back. She said environmental and health concerns related to the demolition of vacant houses should be addressed.

“I have heard no one talk about the health challenges of the people who live in Middle East — like diabetes and high blood pressure,” Redmond said.

As Monday’s nearly four-hour hearing ended about 9 p.m., Stokes said he planned to hold another one and Branch pledged more oversight of the EBDI project.

“I’m hoping that moving forward, the three of us [Branch, Stokes and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young] will monitor things closely,” Branch said.

Stokes and Branch, who represent the EBDI redevelopment area, are nonvoting members of the EBDI board of directors. Young grew up in the area and formerly represented it on the council.

3 comments

  1. Transparency is fine and dandy but let’s get going!!!!

  2. Thanks for highlighting resident comments in this article.
    Realizing the many issues residents presented, I am sure,
    they all could not be given adequate coverage. However, I
    would like to expand on my own comments and concerns.’
    The reason I wore the sign “Let My People Go” taped to my
    back at this public hearing was to bring attention to over
    30 home owners and 5 minority businesses that have been
    left in limbo by the urban renewal ordinance passed in
    2002 which created an opportunity for EBDI to move forward
    with the redevelopment of the area.
    Unfortunately, EBDI decided it did not need all of the
    property it initially targeted.
    The project literally ate the heart out of the Middle
    East neighborhood by focusing on a cookie cutter shaped
    “piano” shaped footprint, along the railroad track. However,
    they left the crust of the Middle East community to the
    misery of property depreciation, and neglect. There were
    no impact funds set aside for this enormous project. Businesses have suffered from the relocation of thousands
    from ‘the piano’ leaving store owners suffering as a result.
    These home owners, and property owners have had to silently
    bare the burden of their property depreciating since 2002,
    due to being placed under eminent domain, and no one ever
    sending them a letter or notice to release them from the
    grip of eminent domain, since their properties were not
    going to be included in “the new Eastside” redevelopment
    project.
    No resident group (SMEAC), or city agency has felt an
    obligation to meet with these residents nor to advocate
    for these property owners to be RELEASED from the burden
    of eminent domain, although its been 9 years.
    These property owners cannot sell their property,because
    no one wants to purchase property under eminent domain.
    These residents have silently attended both resident meetings, and EBDI meetings without humanitarian relief.
    They came forward at the public hearing to bring light
    to their plight and suffering due to the city not being
    sensitive to the harm the urban renewal project has unnecessarily subjected them to.
    We seriously hope the city council and the housing department will do the right thing…release these properties from the grip of eminent domain! Yes, Let My
    People Go!
    The second issue, I personally, raised was the request
    that the city convey the property that EBDI is housed in,
    1731 E.Chase St, to the community to house the East Baltimore Historical Library.
    WHY?? The site is the former location of #135 Elementary
    School, which burned down in the late 60’s. The site was
    later rebuilt as Luther Craven Mitchell Primary School.
    It’s former, principal, Sedonia Meritt,84 yrs old has
    relayed to us that the primary school was named after
    Luther Craven Mitchell, former history teacher-Dunbar
    High School. Further, located in the corner stone of the
    building is a time capsule which lists the names of all
    of the children, teachers and principals of school #135.
    To be sure, the site is an appropriate legacy for this
    involuntarily relocated community to house its history,
    teach genealogy and preserve the best of EB for future
    generations of families to better under the contributions
    of EB residents and families to the history of the city
    of Baltimore. All of us feel that even though our properties are being sacrificed to create ‘the new Eastside,
    we deserve an opportunity to claim the building for the
    archiving and preservation of our own history. No one is
    ever going to tell the true stories of EB other than us.
    Yes, Let My People GO!

    Nia Redmond (eastbaltimore101@gmail.com)

  3. It’s clear that ebdi have a staff that do not have an idea how to facillatate such a project, there making to much money for on the job training what are there experience what or who qualified them ?????????????????????
    friends of friends of friends of friends ?????????????????????????????????????????????