Del. Miller withdraws state bond proposal She won't seek funds for agriculture center

January 30, 1998|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

During last year's General Assembly session, Del. Ellen Willis Miller took the lead in securing $300,000 in state money for a new exhibition center and arena at the Carroll County Agricultural Center in Westminster.

Pledging continued support, Miller prefiled a bill for the 1998 legislative session for another $300,000 in matching state bond money.

Last week, project organizers were surprised and disappointed when Miller withdrew her proposal, saying that the project lacked focus, had grown too large and would create problems for the adjacent residential community.

"Personally I'm disappointed," said David L. Greene, director of the Carroll County Extension Service. "There were some assurances that it would go through this year.

"I think the agricultural community is going to be surprised," said Greene, a member of the center's fund-raising committee.

Miller said she reversed herself after learning of modifications to the project and after a meeting with residents of the Winchester Park neighborhood.

Among her concerns: the increased cost of the proposed 41,000-square-foot facility, the frequency and type of events at the new center, the ability to generate adequate revenue and the disruption to the surrounding community.

"The plans for the utilization of this building are in my mind very grand, and I'm a bit concerned about that," said Miller, the only Democrat in Carroll's six-member delegation to Annapolis. "I think neighborhood concerns are legitimate from the viewpoint that they don't know what's going to be there and they have a right to be concerned."

Delegation to meet

Sen. Larry Haines, chairman of Carroll's delegation, said that lawmakers will meet next week to discuss local bills, including whether to take up the agricultural center bond bill originally sponsored by Miller.

"I think we're in a good position as a delegation," to request state bond money, Haines said. "This is an appropriate year to ask for it because we [the Carroll delegation] have no other bond bills in. The budget surplus would, I think, help support us in getting the money."

Miller said she still supports the project in principle and raised the possibility of waiting until next year to request additional state money. Construction is scheduled to begin in August 1999.

"I believe we need to take time out to refocus the project," she said.

For two years, the agriculture center board of directors has been developing plans and raising money for a new exhibition and trade show building. County economic development officials have said the building will be the largest trade show facility between Baltimore and York, Pa.

Leasing for events

Built in 1954, the center, a cluster of barns, livestock pavilions and show rings on 13 acres off Westminster's Center Street, is the site of the Carroll County 4-H Fair. Board members have said they plan to lease the new exhibition building for various large events, such as boat and auto shows and dog shows, to help cover the cost of the project.

The center's fund-raising committee has $1.3 million from all sources -- cash, pledges and in-kind contributions, said Lawrence Meeks, president of the center's board of directors. That includes $400,000 in matching funds from the state.

Miller said she learned late last year that the project's price tag had increased from $1.5 million to $2.3 million and that the board had decided to move the site of the proposed building.

Miller also said she was surprised to learn that the proposal included a 400-seat dining room and was designed to have two floors rather than one.

Neighborhood meeting

She said she began to have serious doubts about the viability of the project after she attended a meeting earlier this month with residents of the Winchester Park neighborhood.

"I entered that meeting thinking this is a small group of neighbors with a NIMBY [Not in my back yard] viewpoint," Miller said. "When I came away, I had an entirely different feeling."

Winchester Park residents told Miller that the center's board does not have a detailed business plan and has not thoroughly considered the facility's impact on the nearby community.

"To bring in money and to pay off the debt service, I'm concerned they will have to have large events there every single weekend," Miller said.

Ron Schmidt, an 18-year Winchester Park resident who organized the neighborhood meeting with Miller, has collected more than 700 signatures on a petition opposing the proposed exhibition center.

Not satisfied

At a meeting Tuesday at the center that drew more than 100 residents, Schmidt and his neighbors questioned board members about the project and were not satisfied with the answers.

"We asked specifically do they have a business plan, a marketing strategy, what types of groups would they be soliciting and there was not one definitive answer," said Schmidt.

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