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Morgan State University unveils plan to boost neighborhood

Mary Anne Akers, Dean of Morgan State University's School of Architecture and Planning
Mary Anne Akers, Dean of Morgan State University's School of Architecture and Planning - Steve Ruark
When Beatrice Bangura was searching for a college, Morgan State University students and faculty won her over.
“The people I saw at Morgan when I visited were friendly. They would open doors. I thought to myself, ‘This is a place I could see myself going,’” Bangura says of the historically black university in Northeast Baltimore.    
But since joining the 6,000 or so other students on the university’s urban campus at 1700 E. Cold Spring Lane, the junior studying broadcast journalism has been disappointed at some off-campus circumstances. Safety is a real concern as the neighborhood witnesses some of the city’s most violent crimes. Students’ parking in a neighboring community has created tension with area residents. Bangura also notes the lack of off-campus dining options.
Morgan State University leaders hope to put an end to these complaints with a new initiative, the Morgan Community Mile. By partnering with neighborhood organizations and business groups in the surrounding area, the university hopes to improve the quality of life for students and faculty and encourage living and spending in the neighborhood. It echoes efforts by other area universities that are taking a more active role in their communities as so-called “anchor institutions.”       
“This is about a long-term engagement on the part of Northeast Baltimore and Morgan to bring about sustained change in the area,” Morgan State University President David Wilson said at a recent news conference on the initiative.

University leaders are still working out specifics and how to pay for the program. But they have discussed several possibilities: a “live near where you work” program for employees; a shuttle between Morgan and the popular dining destination of Hamilton/Lauraville; redeveloping an aging shopping center; and, forming stronger partnerships with neighborhood organizations. The initiative’s reach extends about 12 square miles and includes about 114,300 residents in dozens of neighborhoods, and six business associations.

Some of the organizations that already have signed on as active partners in the initiative include Hamilton-Lauraville Main Street; community development corporation the Northeast Development Alliance; environmental group Blue Water Baltimore; and, MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital.

Students, faculty, and residents weigh in

Since McDonald’s is the only restaurant within walking distance of campus, better dining options are on students’ and professors’ wish lists.

“Around campus, it would be great to have a few clean, safe restaurants, natural places to go and visit with fellow colleagues or students,” says Seth Vannatta, assistant professor in the department of philosophy and religious studies at Morgan.

The Northwood Shopping Center, an aging shopping center about a mile from Morgan’s campus, is a notable source of concern for folks both in the Morgan community and surrounding neighborhoods. Dina Lansey, a clinical research recruitment specialist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, grew up in the neighborhood and now lives three blocks from Morgan’s campus where she’s raising her own children. She has witnessed firsthand the decline of the once thriving shopping center.

“I think it would be nice to see the community and Morgan partner to not only spruce it up but maybe bring in merchants that would draw business from students and the surrounding community,” Lansey says.

Morgan’s Mary Anne Akers, who is spearheading the initiative, acknowledges this as a priority. “We want to develop the Northwood Shopping Center. Now, there’s no hub where folks can go for a cup of coffee,” says Akers, dean of Morgan's School of Architecture & Planning. In the interim, the initiative will encourage the Morgan community to seek out dining options in nearby Hamilton/Lauraville and may provide a shuttle to make it easier.

Community partners envision mutual benefits

One of Morgan’s partners in the Morgan Community Mile may offer some insight into how to re-build a successful commercial hub. Hamilton-Lauraville Main Street has in recent years created an inviting enclave of retail and dining options in its neighborhood that draws visitors from the immediate and surrounding communities.

Although a part of Lauraville actually borders Morgan’s campus, says Lansinger, historically there didn’t seem to be much interaction between the two communities, says Regina Lansinger, director of Hamilton-Lauraville Main Street. “It’s almost like Morgan has been an island. I’m really excited about this outreach.”
“It’s almost like Morgan has been an island. I’m really excited about this outreach.” - Regina Lansinger, Hamilton-Lauraville Main Street
Recently, Lansinger relied on students in Morgan's architecture program to draw renderings for neighborhood banners and a building that may eventually be used as a community center. “I can dream bigger now, knowing I have a partner [in Morgan],” Lansinger says.

So, too, can Jeff Matton, president of MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital, another partner in the initiative. The surrounding community that the hospital serves is wracked with many health problems. The hospital has identified diabetes and cardiovascular disease as two prevalent community health issues with far-reaching implications, many of which can be controlled with education and support.

“We’ve got resources—a very sophisticated nutrition function, registered dieticians, a community garden—right on the hospital campus. But the name of the game is how can we coordinate and leverage each others’ talents to benefit the health of the community,” Matton says. Working closely with Morgan's health and policy school, Good Samaritan Hospital hopes to glean the answers to these questions.

“We’re obviously two pillars in the community with similar goals. At the grassroots level, that’s something we’ve taken seriously for many years,” Matton says.
Long on support, short on funding

The Morgan Community Mile has strong community support but right now it’s short on financial support.

“We do not have direct funding for the project,” Akers says.

It is exploring grants and seeking corporate sponsorship. Beyond that, Akers says the university has some seed money, plus city and state incentives, such as the proposed Live Near Your Work Program. A public-private partnership, the program offers financial incentives for employees to buy homes near their workplace.

Though plans are still unclear, Akers says it is designed to be long-lasting. “We want it to be forever, not just ten years,” she says. 

Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore-based freelance writer, covering topics as diverse as parenting and public health. She writes for several local print and web outlets, universities, and medical centers.

All photographs by STEVE RUARK.

Click photos to read captions.
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