Strong City Baltimore, a nonprofit that holistically strengthens people and neighborhoods, has generated more than $20 million in private investment since 2007. The 29th Street Community Center, which had been closed by the city in 2011, was reopened by Strong City in 2013 and is thriving with 450 adults and children enrolled weekly in its programs – 70 percent of which are led by community residents.
Strong City Baltimore CEO Karen Stokes recently sat down with SmartCEO to discuss her organization’s vision of the future and what it’s doing to get there.
SmartCEO: Describe your typical work day?.
STOKES: I run a fairly large nonprofit, so no one day is like the next one. As the CEO, I’m actually, right now, in the middle of a major acquisition of a building we are going to be rehabbing in East Baltimore. Twenty-six million dollar rehab of about 87,000 square-feet, so a lot of my time is around the building acquisition. I spend a lot of time with our basic work, which is building and strengthening neighborhoods and people throughout Baltimore. Whether it’s with the community organizing department, or our center for adult learners. So there’s a lot of variety in the kind of work I do.
SmartCEO: Tell me a little more about your nonprofit.
STOKES: We consider ourselves a small business, although it is not really small. We have about $11 million budget with about 45 on staff there. And I think with the environment, part of my job is to be a cheerleader for Baltimore. And I can easily do that because I really do believe that Baltimore has some really tremendous assets, and what we really need to be doing is promoting a lot of the really great things that are happening in Baltimore. And as you can tell from my name, Strong City Baltimore is aspirational. We believe we are currently strong city, but could certainly be even stronger as a city.
SmartCEO: What do you see Mayor Catherine Pugh’s role in terms of development?
STOKES: A lot of our emphasis has been looking at development not just the Inner Harbor, but looking at neighborhoods. And that’s really important because we really do need to be able to see the city for what it really is. There’s a real “mosaic of opportunity”, so for me, who neighborhood-based kind of organization, I’m very pleased with the idea of emphasizing neighborhood development. We also want work more along corridors. So I think Charles Street corridor is very important one for us, Greenmount Avenue. So we look at the major corridors and how you can really strengthen those. And, by doing that, you’re strengthening the neighborhoods near by–both–in terms of “How do we create a walk-able city?” Transit is very important, and it’s a lot of the Baltimore Transit campaign, so there’s a number of pieces that we want to emphasize to Mayor Pugh that are absolutely essential for the long-term success and sustainability of the city.
SmartCEO: Can you tell me about some the specifics about your approach?
STOKES: What we’re doing in East Baltimore is: our strategy is building off of assets, so we are the neighborhood just north of what they call “EBDI” (East Baltimore Development Initiative), down by the Hopkins Medical Campus and Kennedy-Krieger. When you cross the railroad track, which a lot of people see coming from Amtrak, terrible — it’s really not a great impression because there’s so many vacants.
The Hoen Lithograph Building, which is the building that we are working on right now, to serve as an anchor for the neighborhood just north of Kennedy-Krieger and Johns Hopkins. That, along with the Food Hub, where Humanim is, we see the three big sides as the way to do to be a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization.
I’m really looking at work force housing, which means: “How do you find affordable housing, like about $150,000 for a house, for people who are the tax custodians, receptionists, people that work at Hopkins and can afford an $875 mortgage, and live and work right near where they work?” So it’s really about livability, so our whole approach is holistically creating a place to live where you’re not necessary dependent on a car, and you can get to an employment base pretty easily.
SmartCEO: How do you feel about Gov. Hogan has approached the issue of housing?
STOKES: Well, we’re benefiting, actually, from Gov. Hogan’s program called “CORE”, and it is a program where the state is providing some early funding for this kind of work we’re doing. So, we actually received $400,000 funding from the state to stabilize this building, this past summer. And we’re looking for some additional support from the state.
Baltimore City really needs to be seen as one of the major hubs for Maryland. And I think what we really need the governor to be doing is focusing on helping to improve our schools and transportation. I like his LINK program with the buses. We’re interested in (the LINK program) because this is the first time they’ve made any changes to the bus system; I think it’s good. But It isn’t enough.
Lot of people in the city are disappointed that we lost the Red Line, so we’re really looking at what else can we be doing to be really innovative around transportation. Young people do not want to own a car; either because of environmental reasons or they can’t afford it because they have a student loan. So we’ve got to figure out how to keep people who are coming to school here in Baltimore.
There’s a lot of cool things about the city: it’s actually a fairly affordable city for a lot of young people to live, in terms of rents, compared to Washington DC or Boston, but what they really want is transportation to be able to get around, as well. And people don’t make that distinction between Baltimore County and Baltimore City, so what’s interesting– and actually, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said the rest of the world just hears Baltimore, they don’t see that City-County divide. So UMBC is very much an institution that we need — just like Towson is.
Near the city, we have a lot of amazing Universities and UMBC certainly is one of them, we have MICA; we have Loyola; we have Hopkins; Notre Dame. There’s a lot of schools. And I think the Mayor has created an anchor institutional strategy, working with those anchors in the presence of Universities. So we have to do more, lots of other cities are doing it, I mean you know they figured this out like Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh is a really vibrant city, really making a lot of progress in this very way.