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.