Photo by Ethan McLeod

The towering box of a building at 2706 Pulaski Highway once housed the historic Belnord Theater—one of the city’s only non-segregated places to catch a movie during the mid-20th century.

After the theater closed in 1965, it went on to host a grocery store, and more recently served as an all-ages punk music venue.

Soon, it’ll be repurposed with a new mission: a hub serving Baltimore’s immigrant population. Casa de Maryland, the immigrant-advocacy nonprofit with an office in East Baltimore and headquarters in Takoma Park, is planning a nearly $14 million renovation of the space to turn it into an education and employment center after outgrowing its present space, located several blocks away at 2224 E. Fayette St.

Casa de Maryland purchased the historic former theater building in 2015 for $450,000, per state property records, and has received a mix of public and private help for its overhaul. The city and state are offering $1.25 million and $1.2 million, respectively, with another $2.3 million coming from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and $5.5 million coming from tax credits. Casa is also launching a $1 million capital campaign to fill in the gap.

“Today, we all look around at our beautiful community and say, with confidence, we are here to stay,” Casa de Maryland board member Jesus Perez proclaimed after a groundbreaking ceremony this morning.

The finished 16,000-square-foot facility will have an on-site job-training lab, expanded workforce development, after-school, youth and English-language instruction programs, and classroom space for financial literacy, citizenship, tax prep and English instruction.

Casa de Maryland hired JRS Architects and Encore Sustainable Design as the architects on the project, and Elkridge-based Hamel Builders as the general contractor.

“I cannot imagine all that’s going to happen in this building because of our coming together, and the support that has been given by all the institutions, individuals, the city and the county,” Mayor Catherine Pugh said at a groundbreaking today. “This is a small investment in terms of the outcomes that we believe will happen as a result of CASA and this building.”

The mayor was joined by city council members, state legislators, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. John Sarbanes, many of them applauding Casa de Maryland’s 16-year legacy in Baltimore. In speeches, they honored the group’s commitment to the city during what Del. Brooke Lierman (D-46th District) called “toxic times” for immigrants.

Sarbanes struck a sympathetic note, noting his own grandparents left Greece for America in search of opportunity. “This is what motivates so many people to come to this country,” he said. “Thank you for reminding us what our country is and what our country can be.”

“This facility will help build a stronger community,” Cardin told the crowd. “It will help the individual who is here getting needed help for employment, or language, or dealing with immigration and law issues.”

He added: “But it will also make our community stronger, more economically successful, and it will build us for the future.”

Michelle Smith attested to that. A resident of McElderry Park since 2002, she pushed through tears while applauding the positive changes she’s seen with Casa de Maryland being down the road on E. Fayette Street.

“I have had the chance to share our different cultures, and have watched as we have formed a little melting pot [of] our own.”

Once the center is built—Casa’s spokeswoman Lizette Olmos said in an email that it should be finished in 14 months—the nonprofit plans to serve 11,000 people annually, up from 4,000 in its cramped, 3,000-square-foot offices on E. Fayette Street.

Crisaly de los Santos, who moved from the Dominican Republic to Baltimore when she was 11, and earned her citizenship last year, has been volunteering there for six years. She said that while the E. Fayette Street has several offices, a conference room and an employment center, they often have to move events like town hall meetings off-site to places like churches, community centers and schools.

Youth in particular will benefit from having the extra room, she noted, including those in the Mi Espacio leadership development program, which has steered los Santos and many others toward college (she’s currently a student at Baltimore City Community College, and interned in the mayor’s office last year).

“Here, they are gonna be able to meet with the counselors privately”—rather than together in one room, she said—”and be able to develop more of what they want for college and applying for scholarships.”

Kicking off the presser, CASA de Maryland executive director Gustavo Torres reflected on the organization’s “extraordinary successes and victories,” from everyday work like connecting people with jobs and helping families, to big-picture endeavors like advocating successfully for passage of the DREAM Act in 2012.

The new education and jobs center being in Baltimore represents another success for the organization, he said. “Today, we look to the future.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified CASA’s spokeswoman, Lizette Olmos. We regret the error.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...