A county task force is taking another look at its plans for a proposed high-technology research park and educational campus near Aberdeen, slated to open next year, because of a projected first-year operating deficit of $300,000.
The deficit was determined by the 16-member Higher Education and Technology task force, co-chaired by Forest Hill businessman Warren Hartenstine and Aberdeen Mayor George Englesson, after it conducted a preliminary cost-income analysis at the request of County Executive Habern W. Freeman.
The task force initially proposed building an education building as the first part of the project. The building was slated to be constructed and ready for classes by next fall.
Hartenstine said the task force had not addressed how the center would obtain money to cover its operating costs at the time Freeman requested the information for use in preparing the county budget.
Freeman reacted negatively to the news of the deficit and agreed with Hartenstine that the task force should examine alternatives to avoid spending more county money.
One way is to seek more money from the state, Hartenstine said.
"We'll be making a presentation before the entire state Higher Education Commission Nov. 29," he said. "The reason for the presentation is to secure seed funding from the state."
The project already has state funding in the form of a $750,000 matching grant.
Hartenstine said he feels confident of some additional state support because Gov. William Donald Schaefer has endorsed the project.
"It's a model for the state, and members of the task force met Thursday with the state secretary for higher education," he said.
Freeman has maintained that the county would support start-up costs but not pay for the center's financial needs on an annual basis.
"I made the statement that the county was supportive of the project to the tune of $1 million based on the fact that we got a university in here," he said. "It's a little disturbing to me they would come back and ask the county to subsidize, although they are trying to show that in the out years it will make a profit."
Said Hartenstine, "We actually didn't ask him for a subsidy but said if we wanted to start the project today, without taking time to explore alternatives, there would a significant deficit.
"In fact, Habern has basically put us back to work, and we agreed to explore every other alternative to avoid a public cost. But that doesn't imply that we ever accepted there should be a shortfall," he concluded.
Hartenstine said one alternative to reduce the projected operating deficit would be to defer construction of the building.
Instead, classes would be offered on weekends at Harford Community College and Cecil Community College, he said.
The project would save money because operating and maintenance costs, including paying a director and staff to run the facility, would not be necessary in the beginning, he said.
"A weekend college with classes at Harford Community College and Cecil Community College would forestall the need to build the building," Hartenstine said. "Most of those classrooms aren't used on the weekends.
This way, the developer could put off the building for possibly as long as three years."
The project, the Higher Education and Applied Technology Center, dubbed HEAT, is to be developed on a 118-acre parcel of state land at Route 22 and Interstate 95.
Through programs offered by various colleges and universities, HEAT would offer residents of Harford, Cecil and Kent counties a chance to earn four-year and graduate degrees.
The property also would be developed to include an industrial and research park.