Innovation Village Initiative to help revitalize West Baltimore

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— A new initiative is helping to change the conversation in an area of Baltimore where hopelessness has often led to the anger, which recently spilled over into chaos after the death of Freddie Gray.

Innovation Village, a community partnership aimed at leveraging technology to help fuel a wave of job creation and business startups to support retail and new housing developments was launched in Central West Baltimore.

The official kick-off was held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day outside of the Penn North Metro Station, the site of massive protests and where a CVS Pharmacy burned in the aftermath of Gray’s death.

Richard May, the chairman of Innovation Village, said the goal is to create an economic base that works together with colleges like Coppin State and the Maryland Institute College of Art and also other cultural institutions and neighborhood associations.

“It’s going to include others and we are going to drive economic growth,” he said.

“Over the next three months we will develop an action plan for financial incentives to market the area to employers and residents.

“There are already a couple of startup technology firms who have committed to opening here and the response has been great, we’ve received tremendous interest from existing residents, entrepreneurs and firms that are looking to move into innovation village,” May said.

Innovation Village began because of the desperate need for jobs and stability in West Baltimore. May and others then studied economic growth in other cities to help determine solutions.

Cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Detroit have zones similar to Innovation Village, according to May, who also co-founded the Mount Royal Community Development Corp., which serves as a partner in the new initiative.

While the focus will be on growing start-ups, May says potential tech jobs would also lead to solid employment for real estate agents, coffeehouse workers and retail workers.

“For me, this is very personal, being an African-American and my family living in the area,” May said. “A lot of the challenges and problems we see have been the result of decades of disinvestment, so knowing what jobs mean in our community, this has been very personal for me to help deliver a solution.”

May was joined by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake; City Comptroller Joan Pratt; City Council President Bernard Young; and others at the official launch. Even Governor Hogan reportedly has endorsed the initiative.

“Frankly, our timing couldn’t be better as Governor Larry Hogan and the mayor have pledged to target funding for demolition and development in areas like Central West Baltimore,” said Steva A. Komeh Nkrumah, a long-time West Baltimore resident and president of the Historic Marble Hill Community Association. “For years we’ve been planning, but there were no resources to implement. Now, with nearly a billion dollars coming to Baltimore in the next four years, surely this area can’t be overlooked. In fact, I guess we represent a sort of Ground Zero, so rebuild should start here.”