Washington County, Hagerstown make cases for college campus

Glendening listens as officials vie for new UM site

September 16, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN -- Gov. Parris N. Glendening sat as a jury of one yesterday as Washington County officials and the Hagerstown city government pleaded their cases in a dispute over the location of a new state university campus.

Glendening came to hear their arguments and to see for himself two proposed sites for the long-sought Washington County campus of the University System of Maryland -- one along Interstate 70 and another in downtown Hagerstown. As the official who proposes the state budget, the ultimate choice will be his.

The governor's decision could send a message about how aggressively he intends to pursue his Smart Growth policy of channeling state construction into downtown areas.

Scott Hancock, executive director of the Maryland Municipal League, said officials all over the state are watching with interest.

"With something as important as a university complex, that's something we feel is very important to our cities," Hancock said.

The governor got an earful yesterday from both sides in the dispute, which has garnered extensive local news coverage and frayed relations among local political leaders.

County and university officials told Glendening that their preferred site in Allegheny Energy Co.'s Friendship Technology Park was the logical choice because of its abundant room for parking and convenient access to the interstate.

Meeting with the governor in the Allegheny Energy boardroom, advocates of the technology park said the site was the clear choice of the county's selection committee and noted that it falls within a designated development area, as required by Maryland's 1997 Smart Growth law.

They said the utility had agreed to donate 20 acres for the campus, where an estimated 1,240 students will be able to earn bachelor's degrees from the various colleges in the state university system without leaving the county.

"We believe it will create a substantial number of jobs," county planning director Robert Arch told the governor.

At a presentation in downtown Hagerstown later in the afternoon, city officials assured him they were willing to give the state the former Baldwin House hotel, a closed department store and whatever buildings it needs for future expansion.

"There were some interesting interpretations of what donation means on the other side," the governor quipped.

Hagerstown Mayor Bob Bruchey said a downtown campus would help "preserve the city's heart" while making use of existing infrastructure. That, he said, would be more in keeping with Smart Growth policy, which gives downtown areas preference for state government construction projects.

"The downtown Hagerstown site is the Smart Growth site for the University of Maryland," the mayor said.

Both sides used their time with the governor to indulge in some negative campaigning against the site they oppose.

The mayor questioned why the state would want to build on 40 acres of prime farmland. Advocates of the Allegheny Energy site, about a mile outside the city limits, said a downtown location would be vexed with traffic and parking problems.

"We have the amenities, we have the transportation, we have the infrastructure. Why duplicate that someplace else?" countered Bruchey, a Republican maverick who is at odds with his legislative delegation and county commission over the issue.

One thing both sides agree on is that the campus is of vital importance to Washington County, which has no four-year colleges within its boundaries. The campus, which will operate mainly at night, will substantially expand educational opportunities around this industrial city.

Local officials were pessimistic last spring about their chances of winning funding. Most of the county's Republican-dominated legislative delegation had refused to support the tobacco tax increase the governor insisted was necessary to finance the project.

But in the closing days of the legislative session, Glendening decided to provide planning funds for the project anyway.

It will not be an easy call for the governor, said former state delegate D. Bruce Poole, who's staying neutral in the dispute.

"He's got some strong supporters in several camps coming at him," said Poole. "He's going to have to say no to some people he likes."

Glendening told the officials he had not made a choice, but promised a quick decision.

At times, however, he appeared to tip his hand. His questions about the Allegheny Energy site were a bit more aggressive than the softballs he tossed the city officials, and he appeared to be giving university officials such as Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg a seminar on the meaning of Smart Growth.

Glendening assured advocates of both sites that contrary to local speculation, the money for the campus would be in next year's budget.

And when all is said and done, that's what is truly important to Washington County, Poole said.

"The governor could probably pick the top of a flagpole on this issue and still come away popular," the veteran Democrat said. "I honestly believe people would be happy with a four-year site anywhere within the county lines."

Pub Date: 9/16/99

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