Tech company welcome, Harford executive says

Cecil agency denounced for letting pact get away

November 13, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

In contrast to its reception in Cecil County, Berkshire Laboratories Inc. is being welcomed with open arms in Harford County.

County Executive James M. Harkins said yesterday that, while he would do nothing to lure Berkshire away from Cecil, "once they set their sights on Harford County, we rolled up our sleeves and we are working hard to make it happen in a timely fashion."

"We will certainly do everything we can to make it happen and in a harmonious way," he added.

The atmosphere was entirely different yesterday morning at the Cecil County Board of Commissioners office in Elkton.

Nelson K. Bolender, president of the five-member board, was greatly disturbed by Berkshire's decision to abandon its plans for a 500-acre technology park at the former Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Port Deposit in favor of a site on the Harford County side of the Susquehanna River.

Bolender said he was "very, very disturbed" by the Bainbridge Development Corp.'s action that halted what would have been the biggest single development contract in the history of Cecil County.

Berkshire would have taken up 500 of the 1,200 acres at Bainbridge. The remaining land was to be used for other commercial development and a residential community.

But those plans fell through over the weekend when the BDC canceled a meeting scheduled for Monday during which its nine directors were supposed to vote on the Berkshire project.

The BDC is a quasi-public agency created by the General Assembly in 1999 to oversee the development of the former Navy boot camp, which closed in 1976.

Bolender said he was shocked when BDC Chairwoman Cynthia Rossetti canceled the Monday meeting. "The vote may have been to reject the project. So be it, but at least let the entire group have its say in the process," he said.

He said Rossetti didn't have the authority to act alone. "For one person to make the decision," he said, "was not right."

When Rossetti canceled the Monday vote, the developer team that would have built the technology park withdrew from the plan and dropped out of negotiations with the BDC to develop the remaining 700 acres of Bainbridge as well.

Bolender also criticized Rossetti for ignoring the advice of Lawrence F. Haislip, a lawyer with Miles & Stockbridge who served as counsel to the BDC, and moving to get a second opinion from another lawyer.

"I don't understand that," he said. "Did she want an attorney who would give her the answers she wanted to hear? ...

"That was the final straw," said Bolender. "That's when Berkshire and the developers backed out."

Reached at home last night, Rossetti said she did not cancel the meeting, but postponed it "to get some time to understand the contract."

"I had the authority to set up the meeting," she said, "so I don't believe I do not have the authority to postpone the meeting."

"We did everything possible to get together with the [state] secretary of general services' attorneys. We got a copy of the draft of the contract to them. They were reviewing it," Rossetti said. "What I was looking for was a review of the contract from someone who was not involved in drawing it."

She said a meeting to vote on the contract was to have been set up for Tuesday - until the developer balked.

"They had made up their mind not to come back," Rossetti said, "so we canceled the meeting."

Phyllis Kilby, vice president of the county commissioners, defended Rossetti's actions. "She had to be responsible. She felt that more time was needed to understand the contract," she said.

"I don't understand the big rush," Kilby continued. "I get suspicious when somebody tries to rush something through, especially something as complicated as a real estate contract."

Kilby said she had no problem with Rossetti moving to have a lawyer with the attorney general's office review the contract. "It gives an added perspective," she said. "I don't see anything wrong with that."

Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said he had planned to attend Monday's meeting and that he would have advised the BDC to approve the plan to locate Berkshire at Bainbridge.

"Their science is far out," he said, acknowledging that he does not understand Berkshire's business, but, he added, the state and the county were not putting up any money to back Berkshire. "There was no risk on our part," he said, "The developers were taking all the risk. The state would not lose anything."

The development team includes Richard Alter, president of Manekin LLC in Columbia; Clark Turner, president of Bel Air-based Clark Turner Cos.; and John Paterakis, a commercial developer in Baltimore.

Harkins referred to Berkshire as "an economic development gem" and said he would serve as a cheerleader to locate the company in Harford County.

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