It's a Big Dream, But What of Facts?

COMMENT

May 08, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

In a chat I had with a Harford County businessman last fall, he mentioned that the county finally seemed to be going ahead with its delayed plans to build a technology center that would link up Harford Community College classes with high-tech companies.

"They've come up with a name [for the center] and they just held that ground-breaking ceremony," he continued. Aberdeen would certainly benefit from the business-research park and campus, he added.

Like others of us, he had confused what was actually being built by Harford Community College and what remains a fuzzy, ever-shrinking vision -- they're actually two separate projects.

The new name -- Edgewood Hall Apprenticeship and Training Center -- and ground-breaking (in August 1993) belong to a $3.9 million building on the HCC campus that will eventually house apprenticeship programs in electrical and plumbing trades, facilities for the sheriff's academy, and the college's business education program.

After some delay -- the low bidder was disqualified due to past performance problems -- the apprentice center got under way, funded by county and state contributions and a grant from the electrical contractors.

The other project, which is the planned high-tech park/college complex located near Aberdeen, at the intersection of Route 22 and Interstate 95, has yet to see a spade of earth turned. It has for years had a name -- Higher Education and Applied Technology Center, or HEAT for short -- and 150 acres of state-owned land to fuel the dream.

What the HEAT Center scheme has lacked in abundance since 1988 is money, defined vision and commitment.

Even the plan for the center's initial building, to be erected by HCC as an incubator or catalyst for private corporate construction, has steadily shrunk from 30,000 square feet four years ago to a decidedly modest 9,000 square feet this year.

The current dimensions are half the size of the architect's design approved by HCC Board of Trustees less than six months earlier; the 18,000-square-foot facility would have cost nearly 20 percent more than the $1.5 million in state and county money available for what was once envisioned as Harford's modern Xanadu by the Cranberry. The trustees even substituted a flat roof for the peaked roof to trim $200,000 in construction costs.

The idea is to attract four-year colleges to offer degree programs at the HEAT Center, to complement the two-year HCC offerings without duplicating courses taught at the Churchville campus.

Eventually, private business would fill in the empty spaces with research park offices and light industrial shops.

Despite a lot of talk, however, HCC has yet to land one college to teach a degree program at the HEAT site. And no private company has so far committed to locating at the state-financed complex.

The delay and lack of outside enthusiasm for the project led several local politicians last month to question its feasibility.

"Let's not build something there just to say we're moving forward," cautioned Councilman Robert S. Wagner.

"This project is going nowhere," observed Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson.

Their warning: Don't throw good money after the $100,000 already spent for preliminary work on the site. (One result: a grandiose master plan that foresees private construction of 100 times the space of HCC's initial building, spread over a half-dozen development clusters.)

Supporters of the project argue that a first step, however small, is needed to get the plan under way, to lay the groundwork for the future development that Harford County needs. Delay is often inherent in such grand schemes, they maintain.

Trouble is, construction costs have soared since the plan was first floated, while interest in the development has waned.

It's not as if four-year institutions aren't already teaching courses in Harford County: The College of Notre Dame holds weekend degree programs at HCC; three other universities offer on-site classes at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The concept of linking technical and scientific training with the needs of employers on the site is a worthwhile idea. But the local demand has to be there, and the development shaped to that demand, in order for the project to work.

The debate over HEAT's potential has also been complicated by a struggle between the city of Aberdeen and Harford County over control of the property surrounding the site of the complex.

Aberdeen wants to annex this land and included that goal in its comprehensive land use plan. But Harford has warned the city to lay off, to keep its municipal borders east of Interstate 95, inside the county-defined "growth envelope."

Otherwise, the county threatens that it might deny water to that annexed area, and Aberdeen sorely needs additional water supplies in order to extend its city limits. So Aberdeen is talking with Aberdeen Proving Ground officials about getting water from the military post. But the county could still hold up the annexation and rezoning, and so on.

All of which means that a lot of issues remain to be resolved to smooth the way for development of the HEAT complex. And that's even assuming the project still holds its original promise -- an issue that must surely be discussed by candidates in this year's Harford elections.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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