Charles “Choo” Smith traveled to every state and many countries when he played for the Original Harlem Globetrotters. It gave him the opportunity to see different lifestyles and the satisfaction of bringing people from different backgrounds together.
The Globetrotters, he said, emphasized being ambassadors and persons of good will. Those lessons paired well with Smith’s passion to build community, especially in his hometown of West Baltimore.
Since he retired from playing in 2005, the City College High School graduate has been on a mission to provide young people with opportunities. Now Smith is focusing on a multimillion-dollar development project in Baltimore that could provide wide-ranging resources.
Smith wants to build Arise Baltimore: The CommuniVersity — an athletic and educational life center offering an extensive list of programming, especially for youth, and eventually retail and housing. He hopes to bring this vision to life at the former Dr. Roland N. Patterson Senior Academy building — named after the city’s first Black schools superintendent — in the 4700 block of Greenspring Avenue at the convergence of several neighborhoods, including Coldspring, Parklane and Edgecomb.
Smith said he wants Baltimoreans to “arise” from differing views and biases and come together and build an inclusive space, referring to the project as an “oasis of opportunity.”
He is determined to make the CommuniVersity a center for gatherings, trainings, athletics and more.
“This is a mission of love. This is a mission of inclusion. This is a mission to bring all people together and to get people to understand how great we can be together,” he said.
As a child before text messaging or social media, Smith gathered other neighborhood kids in West Baltimore the old-fashioned way — a knock on each door and a verbal invitation to play. It didn’t matter if it was basketball, football or a made-up game. Smith just wanted to be outside and around other kids.
“I’ve just always been the kind of kid who wanted to bring people together,” he said. Relatives and neighbors gave him the nickname “Choo” because he could run fast like a train.
At the core of the project is Smith’s nonprofit, Choo Smith Youth Empowerment, which produced a basketball camp, but the organization never had a permanent space, Smith said, and he realizes that sports isn’t the only avenue for tapping into a passion or skill.
Smith wants to offer kids other options in life at the center by providing courses in STEM skills, job training, mentoring, tutoring, and programs to help with transitions to different grades and schools. When someone doesn’t have options, he said, they settle.
The academy building was returned to the city in the summer of 2019 after the school closed and it was offered to other agencies without any takers, according to Andy Frank, a real estate officer with the city. The city was then authorized to sell the property in 2020.
The Board of Estimates approved a land disposition agreement — a contract of sale with conditions before the city settles on the land — with Smith’s nonprofit in 2021. The purchase price for the property is $477,788, which covers the site’s unpaid state bond debt. To keep the property as is, the city would have to spend $7 million over the next 10 years, according to the Department of General Service’s Real Estate Office.
The process of getting a land disposition agreement, Smith said, took over a year. During that time, a new mayoral administration settled in and the pandemic began, which brought delays, he said.
City Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton, who represents the neighborhoods where the center is planned, said Smith and his team have been patient with the process, and it illustrates a deep dedication to the project. CommuniVersity reminds her of the Langston Hughes Community, Business and Resource Center (formerly an elementary school) in Park Heights founded by George E. Mitchell, a longtime community leader who died in 2020.
“I think we need to have more projects like this in the city. It’s all about supplying resources to help with the challenges we are facing in our city, especially with young people,” Middleton said.
Middleton said that people seem “anxious” for the project to come to fruition because there’s an excitement about the potential programs it can provide.
Cherring Spence, Parklane Neighborhood Association president, said she’s one of those people who can’t wait to see a new place where kids can have something constructive to do.
“With all the violence taking place, it would be an excellent opportunity for the children,” she said.
Smith said it was important to engage with the community before making any major decisions and he’s willing to work with neighbors to make the development “a partnership project.” Some were concerned about how the maintenance and use of the fields adjacent to the former school building would be addressed with a purchase of the property. The nearby Waldorf School of Baltimore and residents have used the fields for sports and other outings.
The planning commission recently voted unanimously to approve a subdivision request to separate the fields from the former school building and join them with Baltimore City Recreation and Parks department property.
“We are very happy the subdivision of the field from the former Roland Patterson Academy property has taken place. This will allow Choo Smith’s proposal to acquire the former school property without any complications. We look forward to hearing about the plans once they are finalized,” Brenda Wolf Smith, executive director at the Waldorf School of Baltimore, said in a statement.
Smith is pitching big ideas, the executive director said, and she recognizes their shared goal of educating youths and keeping them active.
Bill Henry, comptroller for the city, said there needs to be many more meaningful and constructive opportunities for young people in Baltimore. The Office of the Comptroller was assigned to coordinate with other city agencies after Smith’s nonprofit was selected to move forward in the process of purchasing the property.
“Choo’s vision for the CommuniVersity will be an incredible amenity to that whole part of town. It will fill a need,” Henry said.
Smith wants the community to know that the project will happen in phases. The first, he said, will include moving into the four-story, 347,800-square-foot former school building, renovating the space and starting programming. The light brown building has seen a bit of vandalism, and green vines creep up some of the walls.
By the summer of 2023, he’d like to be in the former school building. His nonprofit currently hosts after-school tutoring in its Owings Mills office space and will look to implement more programming in the new building.
The land disposition agreement requires Smith’s team to find a codeveloper or codevelopers who have the financial capacity, experience and vision to support the residential phase of the project, according to Frank. They’ll also have to engage the community in a master plan process that details the development. Smith said they are building up their team and establishing partnerships for different parts of the project.
Funding is top of mind for the project, Smith said. The nonprofit created an endowment, according to Karyn Bullock, the group’s chief of economic and business affairs. The organization is seeking funding from multiple sources, including local government, foundations, and private sources.
Smith said his urgency is different as he pursues such a big development project. As someone who has lost several best friends to gun violence, he doesn’t have time to waste and “can’t make any excuses.” There’s also the anticipation of residents to consider.
“I don’t want to fail them. We gotta do it and it has to happen because I remember being a kid looking forward to something and it doesn’t happen,” he said.
Baltimore, Smith said, has changed in that people act like they don’t need to depend on each other anymore. It’s a driver for why he wants to open an inclusive space with an extensive list of resources.
At the nonprofit’s satellite headquarters, where many of the administrative tasks are done, Smith sat in a room lined with photos of youths who were part of the organization’s programming. Many have gone off to college, he said. He can point to every photo and remember a name or a circumstance when he had to step in and help off the court: losing a parent, getting shot or surviving cancer.
After sifting through memories of youths from the past, Smith stared blankly ahead, put his elbows on the table and interlocked his fingers.
“We gotta publicize. We gotta elevate. We gotta create a movement,” he said.