St. Paul will try to sell property

Insurance company says Mount Washington site now too big for workers

Not leaving city, officials vow

September 13, 2002|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

The St. Paul Cos. Inc. said yesterday it will attempt to sell its 68-acre Mount Washington campus, where 2,700 people once worked when it was the corporate home of USF&G Corp.

Officials for the insurance company said the sale was necessary because the property is too big for the 750 employees now working there, but they stressed yesterday that workers will not be moved out of the area.

"It's really important that this not be [viewed] as yet another company leaving the city," said John MacColl, the Baltimore-based vice chairman of St. Paul. "It's a lot like moving from one house to a smaller one, but in the same neighborhood."

St. Paul - and USF&G before it - has had operations at Mount Washington since 1984, two years after the company bought the property for $2.5 million from the Sisters of Mercy.

One of the buildings on the site, the historic, blue-stone Provincial House, had been the home for a group of nuns since 1915, until USF&G evicted them in a public - and embarrassing - legal spat in 1997. USF&G sold itself to St. Paul in 1998.

As part of the 1984 deal to buy the property, USF&G allowed the nuns to remain in the house rent-free for 10 years. When that term expired, the company extended the nuns' rent-free lease on a month-to-month basis, but warned them that they would not be able to live there indefinitely.

In the fall of 1997, USF&G sent the nuns an eviction notice, calling the house a safety hazard with faulty wiring, poor heating and falling roof shingles. The company wanted to tear down the structure but backed down due in part to community opposition. Today, the house has been restored and holds the Baltimore Clayworks gallery.

St. Paul said yesterday it has hired the Colliers Pinkard real estate firm to search for potential buyers. St. Paul officials declined to discuss any details on their asking price, or what the property might be worth.

No deals are imminent. And company officials said yesterday that it's far too early to discuss whether St. Paul employees will keep working at the Mount Washington site, or whether the firm will move them.

When company officials told workers of the plans yesterday morning, they said the reaction was a mix of understanding and disappointment. The understanding stemmed from employees who saw it was better to cut costs than jobs. The disappointment was because of the peaceful setting the complex enjoys, officials said.

David S. Iannucci, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said his office will place the Mount Washington complex in its database of sites it uses in its efforts to bring new companies to Maryland. The department will work with the company and Colliers Pinkard to market the site.

The property is shaped like an hourglass and might have to be split into two parcels and sold to different customers, said Jim Scannell, a vice president in charge of administrative services for St. Paul. The two parcels - described by St. Paul as North and South campuses - are very different, he said.

The North campus includes the Founders Building, which houses law firm Piper Rudnick

LLP, whose lease still has approximately seven years to run, Scannell said.

The South campus, where St. Paul's employees work, would be best-suited as a corporate headquarters site, he said. It has office space, a conference center and a number of hotel-type rooms that could be used to house out-of-town employees on site for training.

St. Paul would prefer to sell the entire property to one buyer, officials said, but if that doesn't happen, the company would look to sell the north section first, and then the southern section, where its employees are.

Only when it looks like it will move to sell the southern parcel will St. Paul start a search for quarters for its employees.

With so many variables, it's far too early in the process to speculate about how this all will play out, MacColl said. "St. Paul is absolutely committed to Baltimore, to at least the present level [of employees]," he said.

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