Rendering of the CEC at 16 S. Poppleton St.

Rendering of the CEC at 16 S. Poppleton St.

Just in case you missed my State of the University Address yesterday, I thought I’d share some exciting news that made its debut during the speech. I was talking about UMB’s work in the community — our work to serve our neighbors and to partner with them in projects that strengthen our shared city.

As you know, a cornerstone of this work is the UMB Community Engagement Center (CEC) in Poppleton. Now 2½ years old, with nearly 20,000 neighbor visits to its name, the center is a hit with residents who live close by — and, frankly, I think many of us were surprised at how quickly the concept caught on.

Programming has flourished since we opened the CEC in a temporary storefront on Baltimore Street, and I’ve noted before in this column that we need a bigger, better building to house all of the center’s great activities and services. I’m grateful that we’re now much closer to finding our new home.

Right around the corner from our current CEC location is 16 S. Poppleton St. On the property sits a historic, vacant building. Part of the old St. Peter’s Church complex, the property is owned by Carter Memorial Church, whose thriving congregation has its home just across Poppleton Street. We’re working with Carter Memorial on a purchase agreement for the property, and the church’s leader, Elder Carl A. Pierce Sr., has told me that he and his congregants are happy to have us as neighbors.

The building is 20,000 square feet, nearly seven times the size of our current CEC, with three stories and a usable basement. It’s been empty for five years, waiting to be turned into something wonderful.

And the possibilities really are wonderful. We have a chance to expand vital programming and amenities that have proved popular at the CEC: after-school activities, workforce readiness programs, legal advice, health screenings, fitness classes, fresh food markets, community meals, summer jobs, and a computer lab. This spring, we launched a Police Athletic/Activities League (PAL) program at the center for the children of Southwest Baltimore. It’s one of just two PAL programs in the U.S. offered at a university, and it brings UMB police officers more deeply into the community, where they’re a daily, positive presence in the neighborhood.

Once the building’s sale and use are approved by the Board of Regents and the Board of Public Works in the coming months, we can begin planning for more spaces that our neighbors tell us they want: an exercise/dance studio, a large multipurpose room for community meals and events, and a safe space for children to play. We’re looking forward to a more robust computer lab, where children can do their homework, play games, and take part in after-school programming, and where adults can search, apply, and train for jobs, check email, and take GED prep and other adult education courses.

We’ll outfit the new center with a conference room as well as private consultation spaces, where residents can take advantage of discreet legal and financial counseling. The center will have a “family room,” where group  counseling sessions for families will be led by our licensed clinical social workers and social work students. An observation room will help us train the next generation of human services professionals as they develop and refine the skills they need as competent, compassionate, and civically engaged providers. The center will have a kitchen, where residents can learn healthy cooking techniques and where CEC staff, partners, and vendors can make food on-site for school groups and catered events. 

The new property’s location is just as important as its size. The fact that it’s close to our current CEC is vital, for the center’s core users are Poppleton residents. Had we moved many blocks away, we’d run the risk of losing the neighbors who have made the center so successful. The property is closer to James McHenry Elementary/Middle School, where we have so much programming already and whose students are some of the center’s most frequent visitors.

It’s probably not surprising that 16 S. Poppleton St. needs a lot of work. We’ll have to gut the entire interior. The building needs a new heating and air-conditioning system as well as an elevator. 

But this project is a fundraising priority for the University, and we’ve already raised significant philanthropic support, which will go toward the property’s purchase and renovation and toward programming. We have private-sector partners who are excited about the possibilities of the space, excited about the prospect of working together on behalf of the community, and we’re in talks to leverage their assets and collaboration. This is a high-profile, high-impact project whose mission resonates with many of our friends, and we’re confident of their engagement.

We also have enthusiastic endorsement from the CEC’s Community Advisory Board. As the paperwork winds its way through the state and the University System, we’ll be holding public meetings with our neighbors so they can weigh in on our plans and suggest their own.

I thank UMB’s community engagement staff, who have worked for years toward this vision, and who are rightly thrilled to see it about to come true. Most of all, I thank the people of Poppleton and of Southwest Baltimore, who believed in UMB enough, who trusted UMB enough, to partner with us in something this special. I can’t wait to see what we create together.


Jay A. Perman, MD