Harkins' fancy ball-handling

Harford County: Executive used novel approach to fill recreation void in growing residential area.

October 14, 1999

HARFORD COUNTY'S a good case study of do's and don'ts for public officials trying to adhere to Smart Growth.

Do cluster development in a confined area. Don't fail to provide adequate services for that area.

Harford mapped a growth corridor decades before Smart Growth came into vogue, but it neglected to plan ample facilities for that area. Abingdon Elementary needs a major expansion because it was too small when it opened just a few years ago. There's no library in the immediate area, no secondary school, no park and no open space (unless you count the shopping-center parking lots the size of the Mojave Desert).

Give County Executive James M. Harkins credit for trying to solve some of that. One of his campaign promises was to build a recreation facility in the growth area. After taking office, he realized he couldn't afford the only undeveloped acreage in the vicinity, with an asking price of $15 million.

Rather than rely on voters having short memories, he tried a novel approach. He heard that the owner of an indoor tennis club was considering selling to an office redeveloper. His administration made an offer. Pending approval by county and state governments, which are both putting money into the project, the "tennis barn" will help fill a recreation void. Volunteers from the county's largest recreation council will raise funds to renovate the space for multipurpose use.

The total price, $2.5 million, is probably one-tenth the cost of clearing land and erecting a new structure. Also, reuse of a building shouldn't raise customary not-in-my-backyard opposition.

Seeing how counties get tripped up trying to secure sites for public uses -- witness former executive John G. Gary's missteps in Anne Arundel County that attracted the local prosecutor's eye last spring -- Mr. Harkins tried an imaginative approach with a welcome result.

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