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Neighborhoodsby Fern Shen7:51 amMay 26, 20230

Amid passionate opposition, Council committee unanimously advances bill to sell former Grove Park school

The area’s councilman, Yitzy Schleifer, “sold us out,” one resident says, denouncing the plan to sell the onetime community hub to a politically connected Ohio nursing home company

Above: Grove Park Improvement Association President Karen Braden speaks against the sale of the former school building. Seated behind her are CommuniCare lobbyist Caroline Hecker and Holly Norelli, its local representative. (Fern Shen)

Robin Pettiford took to the microphone before a Baltimore City Council committee and paused, struggling to compose herself.

“This is very emotional for me,” Pettiford said, explaining that she lives in the same Grove Park home that she grew up in, the home her late parents purchased many years ago.

“We are all afraid that the integrity and the authenticity of our neighborhood will be lost,” she said, expressing her opposition to the city’s plan to sell the former Grove Park Elementary School to an Ohio nursing home chain that wants to replace it with a 145-bed, skilled nursing facility.

“It seems like people that don’t look like us, they come to our community and they take our community’s assets. It’s not fair,” she continued, drawing applause from fellow residents, many wearing red-and-white “Save Grove Park” tee shirts.

Pettiford was one of nearly a dozen people who came to City Hall yesterday to oppose a bill before the Ways and Means Committee to authorize the sale of the 5.2-acre site at 5545 Kennison Avenue.

“We do not want the commercialization of our neighborhood,” said Terrence Thrweatt Jr., one of several speakers who said such a facility would destabilize a small, peaceful residential enclave and discourage new residents.

Part 1: Community anger grows over planned sale of Grove Park Elementary School to an Ohio nursing home chain (12/20/22)

Part 2: Nursing home company showers Maryland Democrats – and governor-elect Wes Moore – with campaign cash (12/20/22)

“Defer your decision – residents need a seat at the table,” said Miguel Suraj, arguing that community members were not properly consulted before the city, after an RFP process, awarded CommuniCare Health the right to purchase the building.

“We’ve been told it’s a done deal,” said Terrence Thrweatt of the Grove Park school building sale. (Fern Shen)

Others were more stinging in their remarks, including Calvin Watkins, who blasted northwest Baltimore’s Council representative, Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, for supporting CommuniCare’s bid despite widespread community opposition.

“It angers me that you vote for someone to represent you, and they actually go against you. They’ve shoved this down our throats,” said Calvin Watkins. “I’m disgusted.”

“It’s a peaceful community. This will destroy its character,” said Shirley Thomas, a 16-year Grove Park resident. “This is a piss poor decision.”

Dr. Shirley Thomas and Steve Ward listen as fellow Grove Park residents testify. (Fern Shen)

Dr. Shirley Thomas and Steve Ward listen as fellow Grove Park residents testify against the sale of their former neighborhood school to a nursing home company. (Fern Shen)

Schleifer Absent

When the time came to vote, Bill 22-0270 passed unanimously with no discussion.

Voting “yes” were all five members present:

Chairman Eric T. Costello (11th District), Danielle McCray (2nd District), Sharon Green Middleton (6th District), Robert Stokes (12th District) and Ryan Dorsey (3rd District.)

“They’ve shoved this down our throats. I’m disgusted”  – Resident Calvin Watkins.

Kristerfer Burnett (8th District) was absent. So was Schleifer (5th District), who had “an excused absence for observance of a religious holiday,” Costello announced.

Asked for comment by a television reporter after yesterday’s vote, Costello led the way to his City Hall office.

Upon arriving, Costello barred The Brew from entering, saying, “This is a private space.”

Grove Park residents protest at City Hall. (Fern Shen)

Grove Park residents at an earlier protest outside City Hall. (Fern Shen)

Protests and Petitions

The sale of the school building has not been finalized. The bill still needs to go before the full Council, signed by Mayor Brandon Scott and get final approval from the Board of Estimates.

But those steps are considered pro forma after yesterday’s passage of a plan that the Grove Park Improvement Association and many residents have adamantly opposed.

The community has marched outside City Hall with signs, collected 300 signatures on a petition, complained to the city Board of Ethics, buttonholed local and state lawmakers and tried in vain to get wider media coverage.

The 65-year-old school was set to close in 2018 due to enrollment that school officials said was “unsustainably small.” But it was kept open one more year so that Calvin Rodwell students could be sent there while their building was replaced with a new structure.

“It’s outlived its useful life,” CommuniCare lobbyist Caroline Hecker declared at yesterday’s meeting, drawing murmurs and grumbling.

Residents who remember the two-story building as a neighborhood hub – a place to gather for school pageants, public meetings and election voting – want it saved and used for a community center or charter school.

Schleifer, interviewed by WBAL radio in January, said a care facility is beneficial because “it helps the seniors age in their communities. It allows them to stay in their community they’ve lived in for decades.”

The company has said its plan is not a nursing home, but a skilled care facility.

Ronald Wilheim, president of the long term care division of Communicare. (communicarehealth.com)

A Baltimore native, Ronald Wilheim is president of the long-term care division of Cincinnati-based Communicare. (communicarehealth.com)

Over $250,000 to Politicians

Opponents of the sale believe one reason their voices have been ignored is CommuniCare’s generous campaign contributions in Baltimore and beyond.

“They sold us out,” Watkins said in his remarks at the committee hearing.

After reviewing documents on file with the State Board of Elections, The Brew found $7,500 in contributions to Schleifer late last year.

A subsequent contribution of $6,000 to Schleifer brings the current total traced to $13,500.

Annapolis officials have collected much more from the company.

In December, The Brew documented a total of $222,861 going to state elected officials, candidates and political parties.

Then-governor-elect Wes Moore, for example reaped a striking $59,000 from officials of the Cincinnati-based company.

Of that total, $50,000 came to the Democrat on a single day from a top CommuniCare official, Ronald Wilheim, and a slew of family members.

Other major recipients of the company largess were House Speaker Adrienne Jones ($60,000), Senate President Bill Ferguson ($26,000) and Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks ($20,500).

CommuniCare has given another $18,000 to Ferguson since then, including two $6,000 maximum contributions each from Ronald and Dina Wilheim, which brings the total documented to the Senate president to $44,000.

Another $2,500 has gone to House Speaker Jones, bringing her documented total to $62,500.

Moore’s spokesman at the time, Brian Jones, said the incoming governor “is not connected to this issue” when asked to comment on CommuniCare’s sizable contributions to his campaign.

“It’s being decided at the city level,” the Moore spokesman asserted in an email.

Residents describe Grove Park as a cohesive Black neighborhood, home to community leaders and civil rights trailblazer, Dr. Helena Hicks. (Fern Shen)

ABOVE: Residents describe Grove Park as a cohesive Black neighborhood, home to prominent community leaders including civil rights trailblazer Dr. Helena Hicks. BELOW: The former Grove Park Elementary School. (Fern Shen)

The former Grove Park Elementary School.... (Fern Shen)

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