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by Mark Reutter7:39 amOct 20, 20220

A proposed wellness center, powered by an ex-mayor, secures city and state money

The project, which unsuccessfully sought to use affordable housing funds two years ago, has ambitious plans for improving the quality of life in one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods

Above: New windows and roof of the otherwise gutted proposed wellness center at 1429 McCulloh Street. (Mark Reutter)

If once you don’t succeed, double the asking price and apply under another mayor.

This formula is proving a winner for a well-connected nonprofit that’s been snagging millions of public dollars – for a good cause, its leaders say – to convert a rundown West Baltimore townhouse into a community resource and wellness center.

“If you combine hope, grit and great partnerships, you can make miracles happen,” says Elizabeth S. Glenn, president of the Bethel Outreach Center Inc.

“I’m so excited about this,” adds former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, the former co-chair who now serves as an unpaid board member. “It’s going to made a real difference for people in need.”

The proposed center is being touted as a safe, neutral space for residents of Upton, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Baltimore, to connect with public and private service providers for food, housing, prenatal care, employment and banking needs.

“It’s an opportunity to put policy to work, to put our money where our mouth is,” Glenn explains.

At the Northwood Elementary School polling place, Sheila Dixon hydrates. (Louis Krauss)

Sheila Dixon attempted a mayoral comeback in 2020, narrowly losing to Brandon Scott in the Democratic Party primary. (Louis Krauss)

Money Withdrawn in 2020

Yesterday the Board of Estimates approved a $1.25 million construction grant to the group, an affiliate of Bethel A.M.E. Church, the powerhouse congregation that has secured no-bid city property and gifted the sprawling townhouse on McCulloh Street to the nonprofit after it became uninhabitable.

Two years ago, a $600,000 zero-interest loan for the same project was halted after The Brew questioned whether the money was being properly used.

The housing department later acknowledged that the loan – to be drawn from the city’s Affordable Housing Fund – could not be used to install a soaring glass atrium, elevator upgrades and other non-housing infrastructure at the Bethel property.

Dixon’s group had been promised the construction money by former Mayor Catherine Pugh, a Bethel church member, Dixon said at the time.

Expressing surprise when told that the money was coming from a program expressly set up for affordable housing, Dixon said, “You need to ask them why they picked that pot of money for the loan.”

The nonprofit, an affiliate of Bethel A.M.E. Church, has few financial resources of its own.

The pulled loan was one of the final acts of Mayor Jack Young’s administration in November 2020. Ever since, the building has sat vacant – a gutted shell with new windows and a new roof.

(The new roof and windows were products of a state grant and a 2016 legislative bond bill totaling $575,000.)

The $1.25 million from the Scott administration comes from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds allocated to assist Baltimore’s recovery from the Covid-19 public health emergency.

The nonprofit says both it and the community were hit hard by Covid and need the funds for “spearheading Upton’s revitalization, including recovery from the pandemic.”

The city will fund a $234,000 glass atrium spanning this space between the wellness center (at left) and 1427 McCulloh Street. (Mark Reutter)

ARPA funds will be used to erect a skylit glass atrium in the narrow space between the wellness center and its neighboring rowhouse. (Mark Reutter, bing.com)

Artist's sketch of rehabbed building with skylit front atrium. (bing.com)

Wide Array of Funding

The allocation, which includes $234,000 for the glass atrium and $75,000 for board member Jules Dunham Howie to coordinate the renovations, will pay less than half of the building’s expected cost.

Four other public sources have been lined up:

• $1.25 million from the Maryland Seed Community Development Anchor Institution Fund, submitted by the Maryland Institution College of Art (MICA) on behalf of the outreach center.

• $700,000 in bond bill money secured by State Senator Antonio Hayes (D, 40th), who was assistant deputy mayor during Dixon’s tenure as mayor.

• $100,000 from the State Commission on African American History & Culture (the maximum grant given by the panel).

• $251,000 in Congressionally Directed Spending Requests (earmarks) from U.S. Senator Ben Cardin.

Even with these grants, construction may exceed the budget, Glenn cautioned in an interview, due to inflation, material shortages and supply chain complications.

“We’re hopeful because hope is what has carried this project so far”  – Bethel Outreach Center president.

Within the building’s 20,000 square feet, Bethel plans to house the Upton Planning Committee, Upton Westside CDC and common space for community meetings.

There are plans for a bank mini-branch, a dance studio, a program for expecting mothers, an art gallery with programming from MICA, a cafe with a teaching kitchen, and a drop-in health referral center.

Rent from office tenants is expected to bring $100,000 in yearly revenues – not enough to cover ongoing operating expenses. Additional resources are needed to supplement rental payments, especially given the group’s technological ambitions.

The wellness center's balance sheet shows few financial resources outside of government grants and no funding for a building and program endowment. endowment.

The center’s March 2022 income statement shows an operating loss, few private donations, and no long-term building or program endowment.

Expensive Technology

“The building will be a state-of-the-art technology facility with enhanced security system and SMART technology throughout,” says its application to the Scott administration.

The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation has been asked to underwrite the cost of interior fixtures and furnishing for the common areas, and the group has applied to the France-Merrick Foundation for $300,000 to install the security system, green technology and the Navigator system.

All of that money is needed because the nonprofit has few financial resources of its own.

A March 2022 balance sheet, submitted as part of its application for ARPA money, shows a total of $32,947 in cash on hand, with an additional $18,100 held by Bethel A.M.E. Church.

Those assets were offset by $136,800 in liabilities, including over $15,000 owed to Bethel Church, $67,000 to two consultants and $54,000 to an architect.

Outside of a recent $50,000 grant from M&T Bank, the center has gotten few contributions from corporate Baltimore or from its 25-member-plus volunteer board, which includes the pastor of Bethel Church, two rabbis, a half dozen nonprofit executives, and developers such as Zed Smith of The Cordish Companies and Larry Rosenberg of The Mark Building Co. and Cross Street Partners.

With construction not expected to be completed until the end of 2023, Glenn expects there may be more financial hurdles before the Bethel Empowerment and Wellness Center opens its doors.

“We’re hopeful because hope is what has carried this project so far,” she said.

The Bethel building stretches a full half block to Tiffany Alley along Mosher Street. (Mark Reutter)

The future center, photographed earlier this week, stretches a full half block to Tiffany Alley along Mosher Street. (Mark Reutter)

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