Three Leadership Maryland classmates collaborate to bring new UMB Community Engagement Center to life
“You just never know when your Leadership Maryland network is going to pop up.”
That’s what Jon Kucskar ’17 says of the fortunate circumstance that occurred last year when he and a few of his colleagues at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) gathered to walk through a vacant and run-down building in the Poppleton neighborhood of West Baltimore. The building had been chosen to soon become a keystone piece of UMB’s footprint in the neighborhood – a new Community Engagement Center to house a wide array of programs, classes and other services for the surrounding community. The Maryland Economic Development Corporation (MEDCO) had been selected as the developer to complete the transformation, and when Kucskar arrived at the site, he was pleasantly surprised to see a familiar face – MEDCO Director for Development and Kucskar’s Leadership Maryland Class of 2017 classmate, John Genakos ‘17.
“I remember walking up the front steps of this then-dilapidated building and all of a sudden, there’s John Genakos standing there,” he says. “It was a great moment for a big bear hug, and we were both so happy that we’d be working on this together.”
Kucskar and Genakos had become close during their time in Leadership Maryland. The Class of 2017 was affectionately nicknamed “The Year of the Johns/Jons” as there were seven class members named John or Jon who formed a tight-knit group.
“We had a strong core of participants that year, and it felt like we had a very close class. Everyone got to know everyone else and built great relationships, and we’ve stayed in touch since graduation,” said Genakos. “Jon and I got along especially well. We both have young children, and both work in Baltimore, so we would meet up for lunch sometimes and coordinate other social get-togethers.”
What made that morning’s unexpected reunion even more serendipitous was that Kucskar might not have even been working for UMB if it hadn’t been for his Leadership Maryland experience.
“I had a different job when I was in the program, so John and I never talked about work. He was in construction, and I was in utility regulation at the time, so I never thought back then that my professional path was going to cross with his,” says Kucskar. But a well-timed conversation with another Class of 2017 classmate, Jennifer Litchman ’17, the senior vice president for external relations and special assistant to the president at UMB, resulted in a career change.
“We were at Layton’s Chance Vineyard & Winery during a Leadership Maryland session, when Jon approached me about wanting to work at the University, and it happened to be at the same exact time that I was creating a new position of advisor to the president,” says Litchman.
“I asked the right question at the right time,” says Kucskar. The Class of 2017 graduated Leadership Maryland in December of that year, and by early March 2018, Jon Kucskar was hired to his new role as advisor to the president at UMB. A little over a year later, Kucskar, Litchman, and Genakos stood together outside the building that would become the new UMB Community Engagement Center.
As for the building itself, it wasn’t much to see on that first walkthrough. Built in the 1930s, the building had previously been used as a Catholic school and then a behavioral health site, but it had been vacant for at least five years and fallen into disrepair.
“It was once a very grand building,” said Genakos. “It had columns reminiscent of Greek or Roman times, but inside, the walls were crumbling down, and none of the 100-plus windows were intact. The toilets were torn out, the ceiling was leaking, there were a couple of inches of water in the basement, the stairs were falling out and unsafe to walk on, and there was rubble everywhere. But the University wanted to make a new landmark investment in the community. They had funds from a historical trust to help with the project, and they wanted as quick a turnaround as possible. When I looked into it, I learned it was a historic building, and there was nothing wrong with its structure or construction. So, I worked up a schedule, a rough budget and collaborated with members of the UMB team to figure out how we could layout the space. Once we had a pathway to follow that proved the project could be done within the desired timeline, we went to work.”
“This building will be the cornerstone, the anchor, to what we’re calling our UMB Community Campus,” says Kucskar. “The divide of MLK Boulevard has historically been tough for our university, but we saw this building as our statement to say, ‘We are here and committed to being part of this West Baltimore community.’ The building was in bad shape, but we quickly found out the bones were still there. When done well, it would be a beautiful and functional historic building, and that’s why we needed MEDCO and John’s expertise to turn the building from a shell into a masterpiece. His role was to be the central facilitator between the builders and our UMB team.”
As senior vice president of external relations, Jennifer Litchman is responsible for overseeing the university’s community engagement initiatives and had a leadership role in fundraising to secure a new facility.
“About five or six years ago, we decided it was really important to have an overarching University umbrella around community engagement,” she said. “So we set up a small community engagement center in a store front in a building in our BioPark and hired an executive director of Community Engagement to run the center and bring all our initiatives – including medical and dental screenings, legal advice and more – all together under one roof. We added Zumba classes, job seeking and resume services, and children’s programs. But we were hindered by the size of the facility and the hours – we just didn’t have enough manpower to go beyond the nine-to-five week day, while understanding our neighbors needed access to services on the weekends and in the evenings. So, we started fundraising and figuring out how we could provide more services in a bigger facility.”
The UMB Office of Community Engagement was fortunate to receive a $4 million grant authorized by the Maryland General Assembly to help get the building renovation project underway and UMB invested about $9 million total in the project. A groundbreaking ceremony was held in October 2019 featuring local dignitaries and guest speaker, NFL Hall of Famer and UMB board member Ray Lewis. Over the next 9-10 months, construction on the project went smoothly – with just a few minor delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Throughout the process, Jennifer Litchman co-chaired a steering committee of UMB leaders that met biweekly, while Jon Kucskar coordinated communications between senior leaders from various UMB departments involved in the project, and John Genakos provided regular updates on the renovation from MEDCO. Work was completed this past summer, and everyone agrees the building’s transformation is remarkable. Encompassing 20,000 square feet and four floors, the new UMB Community Engagement Center retains many of the building’s historical elements, including original marble in the entryways, and a historic performance stage. But it also now features a large community room for special events and gatherings, an exercise room, a computer lab, a health suite, a social work area, and multiple classrooms.
“The process was incredibly smooth. And it came in virtually on schedule and on budget, which is rare in construction, especially during a pandemic, which is a credit to both John and the MEDCO team and our team,” says Kucskar. “The president has seen the building and he loves it.”
While UMB hasn’t yet been able to fully open the Community Engagement Center’s doors due to the pandemic, the Office of Community Engagement is already providing as many services as it can safely. Staff are leading virtual youth programs for its grant-funded Police Athletic League and the UMB CURE Scholars Program, which mentors middle and high school students in a STEM and healthcare curriculum, as well as providing services like Thanksgiving meal boxes for the families of these students. In December, they are planning an outdoor holiday store where neighbors can purchase donated gifts for nominal fees.
“Right now, we’re trying to do as much as we can virtually or outside. And once the pandemic is over, we will hold a grand opening. We have a lot of people who are ready to give their all to our neighbors, and we’re just waiting for the opportunity,” says Litchman.
“The end project is just wonderful,” says Genakos. “It’s an old building, so we did have a few challenges come up, but it was great working with UMB, and we got through those challenges in a very collaborative way. The most fulfilling part is knowing this space has been transformed from piles of rubble to a place where community members and children can come get education, health care, and other vital resources right in their neighborhood. It’s an extremely feel-good project, and I feel lucky and blessed that the opportunity came to me, and I got to help transform a small but significant piece of West Baltimore.”
When asked how this project benefitted from the established connection between the three Leadership Maryland classmates, Jon Kucskar says it created an immediate sense of trust and credibility between MEDCO and UMB.
“John and I had developed a pretty strong relationship in the program – it’s that trust you build when you’ve gone through the Leadership Maryland process with someone,” he says. “You get to know each other’s character and you get to know they are someone you can trust. John was an upfront person about how he felt, particularly in some of those more meaningful discussions on tough topics you get in Leadership Maryland. So, I trusted his integrity, and that he was going to do right by us and deliver what he had promised. You can’t replace integrity and trust, it has to be earned, and in my mind, John had already pre-earned that.”
The UMB Office of Community Engagement is currently raising funds for an endowment so the work being done at the new Community Engagement Center can continue in perpetuity. To learn more about the UMB Community Engagement Center, or to support its initiatives, please visit https://www.umaryland.edu/oce/center/ or contact Ashley Valis, Executive Director of the UMB Office of Community Engagement, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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