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Mobtown Beat

Enmity Zone

Divided Poppleton Village Center Tries to Pick Up the Pieces

By Michael Anft | Posted 10/13/1999

Michael Dannenberg remembers the early days of the Village Center of Poppleton as "a time when it looked like there would be a lot of partnerships and cooperation" among disparate community groups. Edward Robinson recalls a time "when people thought they could direct the changes that needed to be made" in the impoverished West Baltimore region.

But Dannenberg, a current member of the center's board, and Robinson, formerly its vice chairperson, say those ideals have been buried by infighting and mismanagement of the village center, which governs one of the six federally funded Empowerment Zones (EZs) in the city. Formed four years ago amid high hopes that it would aid small businesses and job development in several downtrodden west-side communities, the Poppleton center is mired in internal disputes and facing a review of its financial record-keeping by the Empower Baltimore Management Corp. (EBMC), which oversees the EZs citywide.

Interest in attending village-center board meetings has been low—the panel hasn't had a voting quorum all year—but a battle over control of the board has been running in high gear, leading to threats, fisticuffs, and even the shooting out of car windows, according to some board members. Dannenberg, who lives in Sowebo, says the current ruling "clique" has had a "chilling effect" on center participation: "There are a lot of carcasses from this group—people who have come with good intentions who've been intimidated into leaving."

"Why doesn't the board have quorums at their meetings?" asks Robinson, who runs the outreach ministry at the nonprofit Agape House on North Carrollton Street. "Because people don't want to work with them."

The center, which received $200,000 in federal funds last year, has had its funding for 1999 withheld pending the completion of a financial review begun in May by EBMC, which doles out funds to village centers and makes sure each EZ is properly managed. Michael Preston, EBMC spokesperson, says that the review—it "isn't an audit," he asserts—has centered upon a "failure to maintain standard record-keeping procedures. There were some receipts missing. We'd like to see evidence that they're working to strengthen the record-keeping end of things."

Preston says an annual review of each village center's books is standard EBMC procedure.

Doris Hall, who chairs the Poppleton board, says the center spent $130,000 of the funds it received last year, primarily on startup costs and a job-training program run out of its office at 1223 W. Baltimore St. According Terry Brown, Poppleton's executive director, because of the holdup in 1999 funds the center's staff of two hasn't been paid since August.

Despite that, Hall says, the center has remained open and productive. "People would like to say that we're closed because of the financial review, but I just saw someone walk in here for help," she says. "Sometimes I think that there's [an opposing] group that wants the money to go to businesses or others it's not intended to go to."

Hall, who says she volunteers 40 hours per week on the center's behalf, says the Poppleton center has found jobs for more than 100 unemployed people, "which is our primary mission—job placement and job creation. We've met the goals we laid out with [EBMC]." Preston adds that EZ funds have helped 99 people buy homes in the Poppleton region, where the home-ownership rate is around 23 percent. Businesses in the West Baltimore Street corridor picked up $266,000 in EZ funds from the Business Empowerment Corp.(BEC), an entity separate from the village center, Preston says.

Still, some local merchants contend they are being given short shrift by the village center, which they say hasn't lobbied BEC on local businesses' behalf. Ted Getzel, who owned Mencken's Cultured Pearl restaurant on Hollins Street until it closed last fall, says his business might have been saved had the village center not been such a "separatist" agency. He blames the center's leadership for allowing "the crime, grime, and decline . . . at Sowebo's heart" to continue.

A Baltimore Street businessman who requested anonymity says the EZ program has been a "disappointment" to many merchants along the community's main shopping strip. "At first, it looked like this program would be a savior for targeted areas in the inner city," he says, "but no one can figure out what they're doing over there." The businessman says the village center has "harassed" shop owners by threatening to take away regular city trash pickups—a service the merchants have enjoyed for decades, even though they are technically required to hire their own trash haulers. "Every group in this area has tried to work with the village center, but they haven't been successful," he says.

David Gathers, who owns the Solo Variety Store on Baltimore Street, says neither BEC nor the village center have provided the financial assistance most small businesses in the troubled corridor need to increase shopping traffic. "The whole thing seems like a waste of time to me," he says. "Some [businesses] like mine have filled out applications [for Empowerment Zone funds], but nothing's been done."

Hall counters that the village center's mission "has more to do with residents than businesses. A lot of these private businesspeople want to put their trash out front [for the city to pick up] when they should have Dumpsters [in the rear]. But why should the residents here have to live with the rats [that would attract]?"

Hall maintains the disputes over center operations are a product of the area's history and class differences. The dividing line between black and white neighborhoods—a line Hall says "no one ever crossed"—Baltimore Street was ravaged by riots 31 years ago and has yet to recover. The community "was better off during segregation than it is now," she says.

Although African-Americans now live both north and south of Baltimore Street, the area is still marked by socioeconomic gaps, and Hall says she believes it's her job to make sure the poorest residents see the greatest benefits from Empowerment Zone funds. "It's important that we have Hollins Street," which is populated largely by white and middle-class residents, she says. "It's important that we can show that people with a certain level of income will live down here. But poor people who live in alley houses care just as much for their homes. This is the last part of downtown to be developed. If we're not careful, poor people will be forced out."

But village-center critics—including Robinson, who is African-American—say the power relationships in the community have changed. Robinson says he joined the board as vice chairperson in 1994 "after [current board member] Lenny Clay told me white people were trying to take it over. But what I learned was that the people who ended up running it were much worse than those they were worried about. I found the black leaders of the village center to be much more racist than the whites were supposed to be." Robinson says meeting times and places were arbitrarily changed to prevent white board factions from voting. (Hall and Clay deny the allegation.) "I wanted the board to be inclusive, but Clay and others' attitude was, "Let's pay [whites] back,'" Robinson says.

"The leadership is mean-spirited and vindictive," says William Pointer, another disgruntled board member. Pointer says the record-keeping problems and ongoing squabbles should compel Hall to step down—something she steadfastly refuses to do.

Despite the deep-seated dissension, EBMC's Preston says his quasipublic agency prefers to stay out of such disputes "unless we're asked to provide mediation help by the village cen

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