Ag center has support, but state funding is a different matter

January 06, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

The county administration is committed to building an agricultural center in the western part of the county. The county's state legislative delegation is also committed to it.

Whether the delegation can convince their colleagues in Annapolis to provide a $1 million matching grant to build it is another question.

"I don't think we can build it without state funds," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker. "I really think the state has an obligation here," he said, mainly because state agencies such as the Soil Conservation Service would be the primary users of the facility.

Winning that money will not be easy, if history is any indication.

Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Republican who represents western Howard, said that in the seven years that he's been in office, the county typically receives between $200,000 and $300,000 from Senate and House of Delegates capital budget subcommittees.

"Getting the ag center through is the equivalent of the python eating the cow. I'm not saying it can't be done, but it's a pretty big bite," Mr. Flanagan said.

"We go in and fight for everything we can. You also have to judge possibilities by history."

County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a Republican who represents west county, said he plans to testify in Annapolis if the bill gets a hearing in the legislative session that begins Wednesday.

"We are going to have 18,000 to 20,000 acres of farm preservation in Howard County, and I think that's enough to justify an ag center.

"And you shouldn't forget that there are hundreds and hundreds of 4-H children in the county that would use the center," Mr. Feaga said.

For the second year in a row, funding for the center tops the county's bills asking for state money.

Since the proposal was defeated last year, a residents' committee was formed, and this fall recommended the Hebb Farm, also known as the site for West Friendship Park, as its favored site.

The committee chose the Brown farm in Woodstock and Glenwood Park as alternative sites for the $2.1 million facility.

Currently, when farmers need crop reports, information on farming methods, seeds or soil management, they have to go to suburban Ellicott City.

Supporters say putting the center in the west would bring those services closer to the county's farms.

"I think it was received favorably last year by some members of the General Assembly," Mr. Ecker said. "I think they thought it was a worthwhile project, but the dollars ran out before they got to it.

"I hope it has a better chance this year. I don't know," he said.

Despite the county's dwindling number of traditional farms, Farm Bureau President Martha Clark said the need for the center is increasing because of growth in other forms of agriculture.

The county's estimated 8,000 horse owners would benefit from the center by having a central location where they can get information on caring for their animals from the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service and caring for their pastures from the Soil Conservation Service.

"The county could lose some of its current offices if we don't move forward now," Ms. Clark said, because the U.S. Department of Agriculture is reorganizing.

Part of that reorganization calls for consolidating offices or locating them with allied state and local agencies. If a central facility does not exist, offices in the county could be consolidated with offices in another county, she said.

The proposal calls for a small office building of about 20,000 square feet to house offices of the state's Soil Conservation District, the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service and Soil Conservation Service -- both agencies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- and the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.

The extension service is in a town house-type office park on Ellicott Mills Drive.

The state and federal offices are behind an auto dealership on U.S. 40, east of U.S. 29.

Plans also call for the center to include a demonstration farm to teach children about farming.

Mr. Feaga said the facility could also provide needed services in west county, for example, providing room for a library annex, which he said was "10 years overdue."

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