By Garrett Dvorkin – Reporter, Baltimore Business Journal
Nov 8, 2023

Baltimore Community Lending (BCL) will spend close to $5 million on a new
headquarters on Calvert Street to expand its business development program and give its staff some breathing room.

The community development financial institution (CDFI) purchased the former American Office headquarters at 309 N. Calvert St. back in March for $3 million. Watchen Bruce, BCL’s CEO, said the nonprofit had been searching for a new building as the organization had outgrown its much smaller space in the University of Maryland Biopark. BCL hopes to move into its new digs by March or April, when it will launch its Business Development and Resource Center, a new program that Bruce said will be a “one-stop shop” for small businesses. The nonprofit received state and federal grants to fund the new headquarters and is currently renovating the four-story, 25,000-squarefoot building at a cost of $1.8 million.

“We didn’t want to continue being a tenant. We want people to know who we are and where we are,” Bruce said. “We also wanted to have our name on the building so people know we are part of the community.”

BCL plans to use the top two floors of the new building, roughly 10,000 square feet, for its own office space. The first floor will be the home of the nonprofit’s new business development program. BCL wants to lease out the second floor, roughly 5,000 square feet, to either a nonprofit or an organization that operates in the affordable housing or small business spaces.

BCL purchased the building from an LLC associated with American Office, which put the building up for sale in June 2022 after being acquired by rival furniture dealer MOI Inc.

The new headquarters allows BCL to expand and formalize its small business assistance program that helps entrepreneurs with all facets of their fledgling endeavors. Bruce said BCL in the past has referred entrepreneurs and developers who have received funding to attorneys, accountants and marketing companies. The new business development program on the first floor will put all these types of services in one place for any entrepreneur, not just those who have received BCL funding, said Clarence Snuggs, BCL’s chief operating officer. The goal is to have accountants, marketing companies, lawyers and IT specialists join a network created by BCL to come to the center to offer free or low-cost services, Snuggs added.

“We will continue to lend and develop financing for divested communities, that is our main product. This is a third product where we want to provide technical assistance and coaching to anyone who might need support and provide that at low or no cost,” Snuggs said. “There are a number of resource providers in this city and region, we want to partner with them. The theme for the center is collaboration, and to be more effective and more efficient.”

BCL, like most organizations, switched to remote work when the pandemic hit in 2020. As the pandemic receded, BCL officials realized they couldn’t bring their employees back to the office because there wasn’t enough space. Bruce said the organization grew from 10 employees in 2020 to its current count of 21, and that BCL expects to have 25 employees by the end of 2024. BCL just couldn’t fit that many staff members into its 4,500-square-foot space on Hollins Street in the West Baltimore Biopark.

It wasn’t just more space that BCL wanted in a move, but also more exposure. Snuggs said the location of the new headquarters is intentional. He said BCL wanted to be near the central business district so that it is easier for people in east and west Baltimore to get to the building. He said a lot of what BCL does is encourage entrepreneurs to “have a stake in their community.” Snuggs said the new headquarters is practicing what BCL preaches, and that the organization now has an almost $5 million stake in an area of downtown Baltimore.

“We could’ve found space to rent, but we decided we wanted to be an anchor,” Snuggs said. “This is going to be our home, we have our name on the building and we want to contribute to the economic development of our own community.

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Baltimore Community Lending supports the revitalization and strengthening of underserved neighborhoods through innovative and flexible financial assistance designed to promote community development.

Greater Baltimore Black Chamber of Commerce is a 501(c) 6 and 501(c) 3 non-profit organization. 1325 Bedford Avenue, Suite 5941; Pikesville, MD 21282-7510

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