BALTIMORE — In the heart of West Baltimore at 16 S. Poppleton St. sits a historic building that has been a fixture in the neighborhood since 1917. The columns on the building’s façade are faded and the windows broken and boarded up, but the inside holds a wealth of history and potential for the city of Baltimore.
After years of being vacant, this historic building and its capabilities are finally being utilized. While preserving the building’s historic exterior, the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) is transforming the interior into a brand-new Community Engagement Center(CEC).
Oct. 24 marked the start of the renovation with a groundbreaking ceremony. UMB representatives, city leaders, elected officials, and West Baltimore residents were all invited to come and celebrate.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” UMB President Jay A. Perman, MD, told the crowd attending the ceremony. “This building is not UMB’s alone. It’s all of ours. This is your building.”
During his remarks, Perman reflected on the partnership between UMB and the West Baltimore community which took a tremendous step forward in 2015 when the University opened a modest CEC located a short walk from the new building.
UMB leaders and West Baltimore community members are excited to see the center expand into this new space that’s seven times larger. The additional space will make room for more community-driven programming that neighbors in West Baltimore have been asking for: an exercise/dance studio, a large multipurpose room for events, safe after-school programming, a wellness suite, and a larger computer lab.
“To see the center grow is very exciting,” said Cassandra Fair, a Poppleton resident. “The energy at the groundbreaking was fantastic! When it first started there was only a few of us, and now it feels like everyone is involved.”
Collaboration with the community is a crucial pillar in this reimaging effort. Community members have been involved in the planning process every step of the way. UMB has established a joint effort with community organizations like the Southwest Partnership to ensure that the specific needs of its West Baltimore neighbors are met.
The importance of community partnerships also was emphasized by Ravens legend, Pro Football Hall of Famer, and UMB Foundation, Inc. board member Ray Lewis, who spoke at the ceremony.
“This building is an investment in people, because if you invest back in people, then all of this works,” Lewis said. “If we affect people, we affect nations.”
Perman, who becomes the University of System Maryland Chancellor in January, also took a few moments to play a video tribute to the late Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, JD ’76, who was a fervent supporter of UMB’s community engagement initiatives and an advocate for the West Baltimore community.
After the speakers wrapped up, the event continued with the ceremonial groundbreaking. Keeping with the theme of community collaboration, instead of having a traditional ceremony with shovels to dig into the dirt, community members were invited to hang paper leaves on a metal elm tree. On each leaf, attendees were asked to finish the phrase: I will grow in the CEC when I …
Collectively, everyone’s leaves covered the tree with color and aspirations for a bright future together.
“The fact that we were able to secure this property and will grow our programming exponentially to serve more families and children is extremely exciting to us,” says Ashley Valis, MSW, UMB’s executive director of strategic initiatives and community engagement. “Together, we have imagined, planned, brainstormed, and convened many residents to deliver a new center that will be a welcoming and transformational space for our neighbors. It will be a place that our community deserves and has needed for a long time.”
The new CEC is expected to open its doors in the summer of 2020. Friends of UMB have the unique opportunity to pave the WELCOME WAY entrance to the renovated building by sponsoring inscribed bricks to be laid in front of the facility. Upon completion of the renovation, an elm tree sapling will be planted on the grounds to represent the hopes and aspirations placed on the sculpted tree at the ceremony.