City leaders assembled on a small side street near Morgan State University in Northeast Baltimore on Friday morning — steps from the sites of three recent car thefts and at least one burglary — and pledged to transform the region with cooperation from the college and community.
"This is about a long-term engagement ... to bring about sustained change in the area," Morgan President David J. Wilson said in announcing the initiative, known as the "Morgan Community Mile."
It's one of a half-dozen similar efforts led by higher-education "anchor institutions" throughout the city to improve their respective environments for staff and students, but also for residents who live near the campuses. The Johns Hopkins University, Loyola University Maryland, the Maryland Institute College of Art, the University of Baltimore and Coppin State University are all engaged in neighborhood development efforts.
But the area around Morgan, a historically black college in one of the city's most crime-ridden locations, may need the help more than most.
Last year, Northeast Baltimore had the highest number of violent crimes and gun infractions in the city, despite a 12 percent drop in both measures over 2011 figures. Two of Morgan's football players were shot on campus, and other students were the victims of armed robberies. The concentration of crime caused Del. Curt Anderson, a Morgan alumnus who has lived within a mile of the university for decades, to call for increased security.
On Friday, he told onlookers that working with the university on the new program to stem crime, enhance services and clean up the environment was among his "proudest moments."
So far, the initiative — which encompasses 12 square miles around the Morgan campus, where more than 100,000 people live in dozens of neighborhoods — consists of a set of goals and criteria for reaching them.
Among the priorities are: increasing health and safety on and off campus, enhancing education and youth development within the neighborhoods, improving the local environment, increasing economic and commercial opportunities, and building better relationships between the school and city residents.
The partnership grew from one such conversation in the fall of 2011 between school leaders and community representatives who were "fed up" with students parking in residential areas, Wilson said. The residents pointed out that Morgan could be a better neighbor, and from that, he said, a vision of working together, "hand in glove," grew.
It would take the next year and a half to organize the effort.
Criteria for the project include: having a community presence in every initiative, documenting the program's impact, generating measurable results to evaluate progress and publishing what they learn, said Mary Ann Akers, dean of Morgan's School of Architecture and Planning. She's acting as a point person among the various partners, which include neighborhood associations, legislators and educators.
Their next step, she said, will be creating task forces to tackle each area.
"It's going to take decades," Akers said of the initiative. "But ... I know that we will have an impact on Northeast Baltimore."
Sen. Ben Cardin said Morgan had a duty to strengthen the area. Its mission, Cardin said, was "to not just educate the individual, but to help the community at large."
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake committed city resources to the effort, saying such partnerships will help her reach her goal of adding 10,000 families to Baltimore. Her parents met at Morgan years ago.
"I consider myself a product of Morgan," she said. "If it didn't exist, neither would I."
Morgan officials also unveiled plans Friday for the $220 million development of their West Campus. Three buildings, including a new business school, are planned for an area near a blighted shopping center, where a former city councilman was shot to death in 2008.
A job fair was held last month to connect contractors with residents who may be looking for work, said Kim McCalla, director of design and construction management at Morgan.
Some neighborhood had leaders doubted the "Mile" launch day would come.
When they were first approached about participating in the program, they were "thrilled a little bit and skeptical a lot," said Johnette Richardson, executive director of the Belair-Edison Neighborhoods Inc. advocacy organization.
But they've come to realize that all of them, including Morgan, are "in this together," she said. "So now the hard part begins. Now is the time that we roll up our sleeves and do the work."