By Demetrius Dillard
Special to the AFRO

West Baltimore residents, especially those of the Franklin Square neighborhood, have something huge to look forward to.

Due to the efforts of the West Baltimore Renaissance Foundation (WBRF) and LifeBridge Health, a former gelato manufacturing factory sitting at the intersection of West Baltimore Street and North Calhoun Street will be converted into a community opportunity center.

The 33,000 square foot building will have a commercial kitchen to support food initiatives, a teaching kitchen, classroom, computer lab and community gathering space. Construction is scheduled to begin soon and the renovated opportunity center is expected to open in the summer of 2022. 

WBRF, a relatively new nonprofit designed to transform communities through strategic partnerships and investments while offering resources and services for local residents, was created as part of LifeBridge Health’s 2019 acquisition of Grace Medical Center (formerly Bon Secours Baltimore Hospital). 

LifeBridge executives, WBRF officials and board members, faith leaders, and local community members assembled in a dedication event on the site of the future community resource center at 5 N. Calhoun Street on the morning of Oct. 26.

The groundbreaking ceremony featured remarks from LifeBridge Health CEO Neil Meltzer, Southwest Partnership executive director Tony Scott, Franklin Square Community Association president Edith Gilliard, Councilman John Bullock and LifeBridge senior vice president Daniel Blum.

(l to r): Daniel Blum, president of Sinai Hospital and Grace Medical Center, senior vice president of LifeBridge Health; Kurt Sommer, executive director of the West Baltimore Renaissance Foundation; Edith Gillard, president of the Franklin Square Community Association and WBRF board member; and Neil Meltzer, president & CEO, LifeBridge Health and WBRF board chairman. (Courtesy of LifeBridge Health)

“We recognized that there was a big area between the east side of Baltimore Street and west side of Baltimore Street that really needed some investment,” said Meltzer who is also the WBRF board chairman.

“We knew we wanted to do a community resource center of sorts. This building, we heard, was available so we acquired the building with the intent of putting programs and services in this building for the local community. So hopefully it will be a spark to generate enthusiasm for other organizations to invest in this community along with us.”

According to a LifeBridge Health statement, WBRF has awarded more than $3.5 million in grants in its first year of operations to 40 organizations either based in West Baltimore or that have a partnership with an organization in the area. WBRF’s independent board of health and community leaders oversee grant awards in four areas: workforce development, food access, population health and youth mentoring programming.

Furthermore, WBRF came about as part of LifeBridge Health’s agreement to invest and improve social determinants of health, ranging from employment to food access, in the West Baltimore community, says a WBRF release.

Blum, also the president of Sinai Hospital and Grace Medical Center, detailed plans for the community opportunity center. The groundbreaking culminated with an unveiling of a visual rendering for the resource center along with its name: “The Factory: A West Baltimore Opportunity Center.”

“In ‘The Factory’ we will work with residents and leaders of West Baltimore to build opportunity,” Blum said. “It will be a place where we create and produce. Where we develop and where we can dream.”

Kurt Sommer, WBRF executive director, said the organization’s mission is to empower West Baltimore residents through “strategic investments that expand services, amenities and opportunities” that foster a long-term impact on their health and quality of life. 

Renovation costs for the building are estimated at about $12 million. The facility will also have office space available for local nonprofits to rent and will house several LifeBridge Health entities.

“This center, it’s a gift to us. That’s how I feel,” said Gilliard, a WBRF board member and Franklin Square resident.

“It’s a starting period because this community has been so disinvested someone is actually coming into our community and investing in our community.” 

Help us Continue to tell OUR Story and join the AFRO family as a member – subscribers are now members!  Join here!