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East Baltimore group demands hires come from community

Saying it has organized 900 residents, Baltimore Churches & Community United vowed Thursday to protest at East Baltimore Development Inc. if half of the workforce for upcoming construction projects does not live in the community.

Richie Armstrong

During an angry two-hour meeting inside Triumph Christian Church at 2200 E. Oliver St., more than 300 city residents shouted approval of a plan to demand jobs on the $1.8 billion redevelopment of 88 acres of Middle East, a project to which $564 million has been committed so far, $212.6 million of it in public money.

“They come in here and fill their pockets up and leave,” said Richie Armstrong, an organizer with the BCCU. “We can’t pay our rent. We can’t eat.”

The grassroots community group will meet with EBDI executives on Dec. 19 to present a written demand for a 50 percent inclusion in the workforce to build a $40 million public school and a $184.8 million health lab for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Armstrong said.

“We want 50 percent of the jobs — we deserve that. It’s our right as East Baltimore residents,” Armstrong said, adding that BCCU plans to begin training workers in construction skills by early January.

“We will meet back here [at the church] on Dec. 20 at 10 a.m., and if they don’t give us what we want, be prepared,” he said. “We are going to storm the building. We want you to know this is a fight.”

Christopher Shea, CEO of EBDI, did not respond to a request for comment on the BCCU meeting.

The city’s unemployment rate in October was 10 percent, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics. Armstrong estimates that the unemployment rate in East Baltimore is 30 percent.

Many unemployed residents turned out for the meeting Thursday afternoon.

“I am here for a job,” said Evelina Midgett, 47, who lives nearby and was laid off from a housekeeping job at Sparrows Point. “I need work. I have three children and grandchildren.”

Richard Winder, 52, said he has been out of work since 2004.

“They’ve got to help us get jobs,” he said. “I need training. Being out of work is not a good feeling. We can’t hardly pay our bills. I’m looking for work — janitorial, warehouse work … I’m willing to work. I’ll be on time. I’m trying to make a new start.”

When the EBDI project started in 2001, thousands of permanent jobs were promised — and EBDI received federal money on the premise that a planned biotech park at the site would create up to 1,750 jobs.

EBDI’s website said that as of November 2010, it had “helped place 746 east Baltimore residents in jobs, including 250 who obtained work through EBDI’s workforce development pipeline.”

An August economic opportunity plan by EBDI stated as goals that at least 15 percent “of the total skilled and unskilled work hours in commercial construction at the site shall be performed by local minority and women residents with the first priority being given to residents residing in, relocated from or otherwise impacted by the EBDI” project. That percentage was at least 20 percent for residential construction, the plan said.

The plan also stated goals for contractors to “ensure local residents employed on other projects in the EBDI project area are given priority consideration for employment.”

Many of the 2,378 jobs created in the EBDI project were temporary construction jobs that lasted an average of two months, an investigation by The Daily Record published in January showed.

The EBDI project started as a plan to revitalize the community by adding housing and a world-class biotech park linked to Johns Hopkins Hospital, which is just south of the site.

But the project, called the nation’s largest urban redevelopment, has been stalled, even as 732 households have been relocated and more than 669 houses and buildings have been razed.

Today, open fields lie barren as EBDI and master developer Forest City push a new master plan that is centered on the new school and development that includes a large urban park, a hotel, retail and housing in the place of plans for the biotech park.

To Armstrong and Jermaine Jones, another BCCU organizer, that presents an opportunity for work for many of the area’s poor and unemployed.

“If they want to spend our money, at least they can hire local workers,” Jones said. “They need the community’s support. It’s up to them to keep us happy. We’re the ones with the leverage.

“The way we’re going to do this is by coming together as a community.”

Terrence Wynn, 51, agreed. He has had training in masonry and was recently released from prison. He showed up at the meeting seeking employment at the EBDI site.

“I’m going to do whatever it takes,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity. I’m going to try and take advantage of it.”