Steele touts Ehrlich's initiative during visit

October 26, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele visited the construction site for the new REACH Cold Weather Shelter in Hagerstown on Saturday and used the visit to tout Gov. Robert Ehrlich's plans for a faith-based initiative.

The project "can be an example for others" in meeting social needs through the religious community, he said.

The building, adjacent to Christ's Reformed Church on West Franklin Street, is part of the former Cannon Shoe Co. factory. It was donated to the church in 1997.

The church plans to rent office space - about 28,000 square feet of it - in the building to nonprofit organizations in addition to providing a permanent home for the shelter.


REACH - Religious Effort to Assist and Care for the Homeless - rotates the shelter among local churches. The shelter is opening for the season today at the Presbyterian Church of Hagerstown at 20 S. Prospect St., where it will operate until Nov. 9. It then will move to First Christian Church on Potomac Avenue.

The building should be ready for occupation sometime next spring, church officials said.

While touring the building, Steele said the project, undertaken by Christ's Reformed's Aspiring to Serve committee, fits Ehrlich's vision for the faith-based initiative.

The initiative would make state funds available to religious organizations that provide social services.

Steele said that during their 2002 election campaign, he and Ehrlich "made it clear that we would bring a faith-based initiative to Maryland." He said the state's initiative is being developed in line with President Bush's faith-based initiative.

At least twice, he mentioned that there is "a level of hostility in the legislature" toward the concept. Notably, he said members of the General Assembly had attempted to limit Ehrlich's access to state money that he might use for faith-based projects.

Nevertheless, he said the initiative would go forward.

"We're resourceful if nothing else," he said. "Where there's a will and God's hand, there's a way."

Steele said providing funding to religious organizations for providing social services was a more efficient use of money because such groups "can do a much better job of nurturing than the government ever can."

More impact

While the government spends millions on social work and treatment programs, he said, "We can't have the same impact.

"You embrace people holistically," he said, getting to the root of issues that result in addictions and other problems rather than treating the symptoms.

Steele said faith-based initiatives are "not about taking state and federal money and giving it to the church. it's about touching people where they are.

"I don't care how you feel about faith," he said. "You have to admit our society is in a very precarious situation."

Steele said the faith-based initiative aimed to assist nonprofit organizations financially and help them use the best business practices.

"Just because you're a church and you've got the power of God behind you doesn't mean you know how to balance a book," he said.

He said the plan would provide a clearinghouse for faith groups to find out what kinds of money could be available to them.

Several Christ's Reformed members, elected officials and REACH representatives joined Steele for the tour. Among them were Hagerstown City Council members Carol Moller and Linn Hendershot, state Dels. Robert McKee, Leroy Myers and Chris Shank, all R-Washington; and state Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

"I'm inspired by what I see here," Steele said. "It's not just a community project; it's a living symbol of the life and concerns of the people here."

Seeking help

While the visit was an opportunity for Steele to push the faith-based initiative, it was also a chance for Christ's Reformed to look for help in finishing the project.

"To the extent we have resources we can leverage to help you, we'll provide them," Steele said.

The church has spent $1.4 million on the project. The total price for rehabilitating the building will be about $3.2 million, spokesman Al Boyer said.

"We have a line of credit, but we will be exceeding everything we can borrow at about $2.3 million," he said. "Our success depends on whether we can land tenants" for the office space.

Although several agencies were close to taking leases in the building, Boyer said none has signed a contract.

Following the tour, local lawmakers huddled with Steele to find out what resources might be available. Shank said they would be contacting several state agencies with discretionary funds to see whether any of that money could be steered toward the project, perhaps bringing more state officials to Hagerstown to meet with the church.

Steele seemed to take a keen interest in the project, asking how many homeless people would be served by the shelter, where the beds would be located and what other agencies would be in the building.

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