October 24, 2023
The Baltimore Banner

In what could be a Baltimore first, communities and developer are partnering in South Baltimore

The coalition has formed a nonprofit that is in charge of overseeing how a momentous volume of funding gets spent in South Baltimore.

Views of CSX facilities scene from the Curtis Bay neighborhood in Baltimore, Thursday, August 3, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Growing up in South Baltimore, Michael Middleton became accustomed to the invisible barriers separating his neighborhood from the next one over. Those imaginary lines, he recalled, meant that Cherry Hill and Brooklyn neighbors shared little in common besides geography.

Now retired, Middleton said something extraordinary has happened to those walls over the last few years. Six South Baltimore communities, wary of development north of the Patapsco River’s Middle Branch, joined forces nearly a decade ago and turned a page. Together, they and the developers leading Port Covington’s revival have built relationships, convened to discuss shared problems and formed a nonprofit organization and board to handle a momentous influx of money they can put to use in their communities however they see fit.

The nonprofit, SB7 Coalition Inc. — representing Cherry Hill, Brooklyn, Mount Winans, Lakeland, Westport, Curtis Bay and their Baltimore Peninsula partners — is set to receive more than $20 million by 2026. With that historic investment, the nonprofit organization and the residents it serves are tasked with something both novel and daunting: using the money to fill in the gaps left behind by generations of neglect.

The needs in the six communities are varied and vast, ranging from dire environmental threats to an over concentration of vacant and abandoned housing. And now, representatives across six very different neighborhoods — many of them volunteers or brand new to grant writing, community organizing and managing large sums of social-impact funds — say they are starting to see the first fruits of their efforts bloom.

“For decades, the communities really didn’t have much to do with one another. The most significant thing that has happened is that we have come together now,” said Middleton, a former poverty law attorney who now leads the South Baltimore nonprofit organization. “And the six communities recognize that we have more in common than we have differences.”

The ways by which the funding is divided, allocated and spent are complex: The coalition has devised a multi-tier system that appropriates some of the money for individual community organizations in each neighborhood; some for broad priorities such as transportation, public safety and education; and some for recipients whose work directly impacts the South Baltimore area.

Middleton, who formerly led the Cherry Hill Community Coalition, is first to acknowledge that the $20 million investment can only go so far.

But it’s a start, he said, that can set these communities up to be more prosperous and effective in the long run. And for what could be the first time in the city’s history, a private developer and a group of community members are banding together to see the work through.

Greg Sawtell, Chenire Carter, Michael Middleton, Ashley Cotton and Lindsay Staton pose for a portrait outside of the SB7 coalition’s future office space in Baltimore, Friday, Sept. 29, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

A long-term commitment to South Baltimore communities

The six communities once housed the workforces of South Baltimore’s industrial past. Over the last few decades, fueled by manufacturing’s exodus, the community demographics have changed. And from 2010 to 2020 alone, the population decreased by about 5%, city Department of Planning data shows. The Latino population more than doubled over that same period.

A mass shooting in Brooklyn in July that killed two young people and wounded more than two dozen others resurfaced long-held concerns of institutional neglect in the southernmost tip of the city. In the aftermath, City Council President Nick J. Mosby accused Baltimore Police officers and other city agency leaders of providing lower-quality services to these neighborhoods than to the more affluent communities on north of the Hanover Street Bridge.

And now, the first Baltimore Peninsula residential and office tenants are trickling in. The more than $5.5 billion project — funded partly with some $660 million in tax-increment financing from the city, the largest such package to date — is expected to bring millions of square feet of office, retail, residential and public park space spanning 235 acres of mostly barren and industrial waterfront land. It will contain the new headquarters of sports apparel giant Under Armour, whose founder, Kevin Plank, began buying up the land about a decade ago.

SB7 was formed largely as a response to skepticism about what effect a project of this scope and scale would have on its residential neighbors. Though it involves no direct displacement of businesses or residents, some neighborhood leaders have raised concerns about being priced out of their homes, excluded from incoming investment and ignored in favor of a new “mini-city.”

While some of these concerns still exist, those involved in the nonprofit’s work say they are building lines of communication, collaboration and change that they have long gone without.

“So many things are starting to get attention — multi-decade-long priorities that didn’t get done because there were no resources,” said Greg Sawtell, an SB7 board member and co-president of the Curtis Bay Association. “The outcomes aren’t there yet, but it’s a process. The structure is there.”

At the center of the community benefits agreement is a multimillion-dollar commitment to the six neighborhoods from Sagamore Development Co., Plank’s development arm. That includes a direct $10 million disbursement over the first five years and a commitment from Sagamore Ventures to help the coalition raise another $10 million over the following five years, according to the 2016 agreement.

The deal also includes a requirement from Sagamore and the other Baltimore Peninsula developers to contribute funds from a portion of every new lease signed to SB7 — a minimum of 15 cents per net square foot — and a portion of every transfer fee per property sale. Sagamore Ventures has also donated $1 million to Baltimore’s CollegeBound Foundation and $1 million to Partners in Excellence for local students’ scholarships.

How has the rest of the money been spent so far?

The 10-page agreement does not dictate how the community entities or the SB7 nonprofit should use the funds, but it does offer a list of short- and long-term priorities that the coalition should address over the next 30 years. They include one-time expenditures on items such as athletic fields and community centers, and it gives examples of needs such as cemetery maintenance, funding for youth development and recreational programming.

“They know what they want in their communities, but may need guidance and/or resources to bring their aspirations to fruition,” said Marc Weller, the president and founding partner of Weller Development Partners, who led development of the project’s first phase. Weller’s team served as advisers to the group from 2016 until 2022, when a new development team, MAG Partners, took the reins.

“It was purposely designed that way so that they could control their own destiny, future, and decisions,” he added. “Our philosophy has always emphasized the importance of community interaction, and frankly, it is just the right way to do business.”

Mark Pollak, a partner at Ballard Spahr LLP who represents the Baltimore Peninsula developers and helped negotiate the 2016 agreement, said the coalition may well be the first of its kind in Baltimore.

“There were no models from which we took our ideas from,” he said in an email. “We believe the partnership is a successful model that represents what can happen when the City and a development team believe in the ability of a project, in collaboration with community members, to deliver unprecedented benefits to the City.”

How they’ll pick projects

The structure through which money flows to communities is a complicated one — so much so that, during an interview with reporters earlier this year, SB7 board members — including representatives from MAG Partners — came prepared with thick, stapled packets of paper they could refer to.

Here’s how it works: To start, each of the six community organizations receives $200,000 apiece to help them grow. The money might be used to secure designated meeting space, add paid staff or apply for nonprofit status.

On another tier of the funding system, six committees — devoted to organizing around solutions for education, public safety, quality of life/zero waste, transportation, economic development and community land trust — can propose projects that can have impact in at least two or more of the six communities. Those proposals must address concerns laid out in SB7′s strategic plan and are reviewed by committees, the nonprofit’s appropriations committee and then the board for approval.

And finally, community association review panels can award grants of up to $2,500 at a time to individuals or organizations already active in the area to further their work or fund new projects. These recipients include the Black Yield Institute, the Baltimore Compost Collective and the South Baltimore Community Land Trust. Each community receives $50,000 to spend.

Coalition members said they rely on their communities to identify challenges they face and how to solve them. But not everyone always agrees on every expenditure and priority,which can spark debate and occasional infighting, the SB7 representatives said.

“I don’t think you’re going to find authentic governance without potential conflict, and it’s that process that gets to some of our best outcomes,” said Sawtell of the Curtis Bay Association.

‘It’s a lot of money’

Out in the communities, SB7 members say their work touches upon a spectrum of needs identified in their neighborhoods: cleaning and greening, older adult programming, health and wellness.

For example, some of the funds have gone toward commemorating a 100-year-old firehouse in Curtis Bay and helping the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter with chipping and vaccination services in Brooklyn and Cherry Hill.

Community members also said the larger community grant awards, meanwhile, have presented new opportunities to collaborate on projects and ideas.

One such proposal — a transportation initiative — is funding church vans that can be used by the South Baltimore nonprofit City of Refuge to shuttle residents around who may not have other modes of transit available. Another allowed the SB7 nonprofit to purchase a former Brooklyn dental clinic that will be converted into community meeting space.

The South Baltimore Environmental Justice Collaborative is another such combination of efforts. Students Carlos Sanchez, Taysia Thompson and Vilma Gutierrez are on a small team that’s collecting data that tracks environmental outcomes for neighborhoods close to the CSX Coal Terminal in Curtis Bay, where methane gas that built up in a tunnel exploded in Dec. 2021.

“We’re the next up-and-coming generation to fix the problem that’s been broken for many years,” Thompson said.

From left: Taysia Thompson, Vilma Gutierrez and Carlos Sanchez pose for a portrait outside of the CSX Facility in Curtis Bay on Aug. 4, 2023. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

LETS GO Boys and Girls, a nonprofit that promotes equitable access to STEM learning, was given a grant to provide coaching, training, mentoring and materials in Westport, Cherry Hill, Brooklyn and Lakeland.

In Brooklyn, funds to strengthen the community association still haven’t been distributed, but that’s because Concerned Citizens for a Better Brooklyn is solidifying its budget. Andrea Mayer, co-chair of Concerned Citizens for a Better Brooklyn, said they’ve changed the budget a few times as they’ve decided on different programs and partnerships they want to pursue in the community.

“We were struggling because it’s a lot of money and we wanted to be wise in how we spend it,” Mayer said. She said they’re considering hiring staff to help run the community association.

In Mount Winans, Angela Smothers, president of the community association, surveyed residents door to door in 2021. There were two consistent asks, she said: a community center and more activities for seniors and kids. She plans on using funds for a playground, walking trails and exercise equipment on South Paca Street.

“As opposed to saying, ‘This is what I want or this is what we need,’ I asked, what would be the thing they’d like to see happen?” Smothers said. “They were losing interest because it has been so long, promises that were made were ignored.”

For Keisha Allen, the Westport Neighborhood Association president and chairperson of the Westport Community Development Corporation, a benefit of the SB7 funds is its flexibility to be infused into existing projects. The Westport CDC, for example, owns 17 houses that will eventually be transformed into affordable housing units, and SB7 money is augmenting that work.

Other coalition funds are supporting Westport’s “green ambassador” program, which pays people to take on beautification work such as trash pickup, lawn mowing and tree pruning, she said.

Allen, who recalled feeling skeptical about the plans for Baltimore Peninsula initially, said her feelings have warmed and softened over time.

“We’re no dummies; we saw a threat, and we saw what could happen,” she said about the coalition forming. “It was making sure we weren’t being mistreated or pushed out of our homes.”

Allen said she has high hopes, especially about the brick-and-mortar headquarters in Brooklyn that coalition members will be able to use for meetings, classes and other in-person gatherings. She thinks the physical space could inspire younger people to get involved and make connections. And maybe, she said, it will attract more visits and attention about the coalition’s groundbreaking work.

“Look at what we did, and how we came about, and what we’re doing,” she said. “I don’t see the same enthusiasm in the same way they get enthusiastic about things in other parts of the city.”

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