Bethel Gardens has blossomed

Manager, residents say development has become safe, desirable place to live

Manager, residents say development has become safe, desirable place to live

February 24, 2004|by JANET HEIM

Don't believe everything you hear, said Cathy Dotson, manager of Bethel Gardens.

"This is a lovely community to live in," she said.

As manager of the housing development for the last 10 years, Dotson not only works there, but lives there by choice. She prefers it to the upscale neighborhood she lived in in Cumberland, Md., where her neighbors seemed more worried about themselves.

Dotson recalls the outpouring of support her family received when her father passed away in July 2002.

"Bethel Gardens came together and took care of my family," Dotson said. "That's just the kind of people they are."

In the last 10 years, under Dotson's management, Bethel Gardens has blossomed. The waiting list has more than 40 names on it and the wait can be six months for an efficiency, one or more years for a two- or three-bedroom apartment, Dotson said. "And people aren't moving," she added.


The 94-unit housing development - a mix of efficiencies, apartments and townhouses - and community center, was envisioned by the Bethel Corporation, a brainchild of Leonard W. Curlin and members of the Ebenezer A.M.E. Church.

Curlin and others dreamed of better housing near Jonathan Street as far back as 1950, with the goal of reducing the number of substandard housing units in the area.

Difficulties in purchasing dilapidated properties and a housing moratorium under the Nixon administration delayed the project, which became a testament to patience and persistence. The Bethel Corporation never gave up on the dream and in 1970 received the support of the Washington County Homeowners Foundation, which helped prepare necessary application forms and met with local and national political leaders.

The site, with Jonathan and part of West Bethel Streets, Henry, Murph and Bethune Avenue as its boundaries, was previously home to a church, bar and rundown residences.

Property was purchased from Curlin, who owned the Elite Rendezvous tavern, and Bethel A.M.E. Church. At one point the project was on hold because one property owner refused to sell his home for the site, resulting in a revision to the plans.

It wasn't until June 1975, after securing a $2.185 million construction loan from the state - through an experimental federal subsidy program - that construction began by Callas Corporation Inc. The city and county approved tax breaks for the Bethel Corporation that helped keep the construction costs in line with the available loan money.

Residents began moving in in March 1976, with a dedication ceremony held later that month. The official completion of the project, more than a decade in the making, was celebrated on July 20, 1976.

When Bethel Gardens opened, rents ranged from $108 per month for an efficiency to $192 per month for a three-bedroom unit. Lower rents were available for those whose income qualified them for a federal subsidy or rent supplement.

"Our rents are still some of the lowest rents in the city, with heat and water included," Dotson said.

Nearly in default

Bethel Gardens was built to be an integrated housing development for both low- and middle-income families.

For the first several years, there were problems filling the units. By 1981, with vacancy rates climbing, the development was at risk for defaulting on its mortgage.

Self-managed at the time, the development cut costs wherever possible and employees agreed to work fewer hours for less pay. A management company was hired, which helped keep the neighborhood afloat.

Despite the hard times, Bethel Gardens survived and now is thriving. "We're in the best shape we've been in in 20 years," Dotson said.

Currently, 42 units are subsidized rental assistance slots where rent is based on income; city Section 8 is also accepted. The remainder are available through the HUD B-236 program.

In September 1993, Dotson took over the manager's job, leaving a position as manager of a public housing project in Cumberland. At that time, Bethel Gardens had 24 vacant units, 10 of which needed extensive repairs before they could be lived in.

Dotson actively sought grants for the repairs and continues to apply for grants to make structural improvements.

A loan and grant through the Community Development Administration in 1995 provided money for renovations. In 2000, a loan from the city of Hagerstown was used to replace windows, patio, storm and front doors, resulting in lower heating bills.

Police presence

While residents took pride in their neighborhood, the activity of drug dealers starting in the early '80s threatened the safety and quiet of the community.

Residents formed task forces to get rid of the drug activity and with added police presence, made some headway. In 2001, a police substation was opened on Murph Avenue.

Two years ago, despite some resistance by residents, surveillance cameras - paid for by a HUD grant - were installed around Bethel Gardens. That was a positive turning point for the neighborhood.

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