After 33 years and grant awards totaling some $80 million, Timothy D. Armbruster looks back most fondly on a few thousand bucks he helped deliver to a few folks to start a farmers market in Baltimore’s Waverly neighborhood.
Next summer, Armbruster will step down as president and CEO of the charitable Goldseker Foundation, which has tried to provide Baltimore projects with “early, patient capital” while working to establish public-private-nonprofit partnerships that foster neighborhood development in the city since 1975.
The foundation, which is beginning a national search for Armbruster’s replacement, has helped revive the Station North area of downtown through establishing the Central Baltimore Partnership, and has collaborated with Healthy Neighborhoods Inc. to raise more than $100 million to invest in 41 city communities.
But $3,500 to help start the 32nd Street Farmers Market sticks out in Armbruster’s mind.
“There were no green markets in Baltimore at all,” he said. “Three or four young people who worked for the city, who I didn’t know, decided they wanted to come talk to me about starting a market in Waverly. They were having a difficult time getting support.
“A month later, Mayor [William Donald] Schaefer was out there handing out Waverly market T-shirts. It was the simplest thing … demonstrating what a group of citizens can do. It doesn’t even have to be a big group if they have a good idea and can get a little help along the way. I can’t think of a project that got a greater return on investment.”
Joseph B. McNeely, executive director of the Central Baltimore Partnership, said Armbruster was recognized as a great convener, often swooping into projects, getting the job done and then disappearing without seeking any credit.
“It was like, ‘Who was that masked man?’” McNeely said. “He was the one that had the sense that people, more than they realized, had common goals. He was a convener. People trusted him, trusted his instincts. … Calling people together … is a very important commodity in our city.”
Armbruster — who looks younger than his 68 years — excitedly remembers his first home in Baltimore being just a 10-minute walk from Memorial Stadium, where he, his wife and children loved to watch the Orioles play. He expected to stay in the area for only a few years when he arrived from Cleveland in 1979, he said.
“I foolishly thought that I’d run out of things to do in three or four years,” he said.
After more than three decades, Armbruster is not leaving because he ran out of things to do. Baltimore is still “a terrible and very difficult place if you’re poor,” he said, and there are plenty of issues — the region’s inept transportation system and a dearth of money spent on the city’s ample parklands being a couple — for his successor to focus on.
But with his wife, Cynthia, home in Ruxton and children in their 30s on either side of the United States, Armbruster said it was time “to dial it back a little bit,” do some writing and make time to travel.
Not that he’ll disappear from the Baltimore leadership scene.
“I’m happy to keep my hand in,” Armbruster said. “I’m not planning to do nothing. I don’t play golf.”
Armbruster, hired away from the Cleveland Foundation, said patience and a long-ranging vision is a virtue in social policy. He remembered arriving in Baltimore just as redevelopment of the Inner Harbor was underway. It was “pretty grim,” Armbruster said.
“The area down by the Harbor was a construction site,” he said. “For a fleeting moment I thought, ‘Gee, maybe the opponents were right. Maybe it should have been just a really terrific grassy promenade.’ It was pretty grim.”
The surrounding area was, too. He grimaced as he remembered what the west side of downtown — specifically Ridgely’s Delight — was like in 1979.
“I remember coming in the first time, coming in from the airport in a taxi and going past Ridgley’s Delight and all those shells with no roofs and razor wire all around them,” Armbruster said. “I thought, ‘My God, it’s Berlin 1945.’
But the Inner Harbor changed into a tourist destination. And Armbruster changed, too — he doesn’t think about the city that way anymore, he said. Instead, in trouble areas, he thinks about what could be.
That’s the vision the foundation’s chairman, Sheldon Goldseker, said has characterized Armbruster’s tenure as president.
“The growth and success of this foundation are indelibly linked to Tim’s many strengths of character,” Goldseker said. “His unswerving vision for a better Baltimore, his ability to see the big picture, his commitment to public accountability and transparency and the patience that is required to nurture the seeds of systemic change.”
Mark Sissman, president of Healthy Neighborhoods, has seen much of Armbruster’s work first hand. Goldseker co-founded the community organization in the late 1990s as a $1 million program to enhance residential real estate values and promote community leadership.
It’s now a privately funded, $40 million initiative in almost 40 Baltimore communities.
“He has been strong and consistent and a great partner of both neighborhoods and institutions,” Sisson said. “Him and his board … as much as anyone deserve great credit for the kind of work we’re doing in Baltimore.”
Not all investments have, as yet, been so successful. The Goldseker Foundation in 2007 gave a one-year, $200,000 grant to East Baltimore Development Inc., which is overseeing the $1.8 billion redevelopment of an 88-acre site in the city’s Middle East neighborhood.
The project, now over a decade old, has been criticized by elected officials and residents for failing to hire local workers and companies rebuild affordable housing for relocated Middle East residents to return to.
But Armbruster, quoting politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, stressed that change takes time: “If you don’t have 30 years to devote to social policy, don’t get involved,” Moynihan’s quote says.
And Sissman said, after 30 years plus four, Armbruster will find ways to stay part of the civic conversation.
“[He was] 30-year supporter of community development in Baltimore neighborhoods,” he said. “He brings a lot of knowledge of the city and its problems and ways to fix them.”