Robey revives plan for complex

Private firms would finance, design new government center

Proposal would include new courthouse

Executive considers strategy as way to cut impact on debt

Howard County

December 08, 2004|By Larry Carson and Laura Cadiz | Larry Carson and Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive James N. Robey has revived a plan he had shelved as too costly to build a large government complex for county offices and the Circuit Court in Ellicott City - this time through a private enterprise.

Robey announced yesterday that the county will advertise this month for a commercial office development firm to devise a way to privately build and finance the buildings, which, unlike a 2000 proposal, would include a new courthouse. The complex could cost up to $100 million and provide up to 350,000 square feet and 900 parking spaces in one place, or split the office space into two locations near the existing county government center.

Financing likely would come from the sale of the county's five-story Gateway Building in Columbia and the Thomas Dorsey Building, a former Bendix warehouse off Route 108, and a lease-back arrangement with the developer, officials said.

"It's the answer to a lot of our problems," said Clerk of the Circuit Court Margaret D. Rappaport, who has complained about mold and crowding at the courthouse. In recent years, the county state's attorney and land records have been moved out of the building, and state legislators have refused to approve money for expansions.

One possible site for the new buildings is the wooded 25 acres the county owns between Rogers Avenue and Ridge Road, just southeast of U.S. 40. The other is the Circuit Court parking lot, where, James M. Irvin, the county public works director, said, the entire complex could be located. Any building there, however, must conform to standards of the Ellicott City historic district.

"I would say it's an exploration to see if we can identify some viable development companies to work with us and see what they come up with," Irvin said.

The George Howard Building, the county government's headquarters, built in 1976, badly needs renovations, Irvin said. The courthouse, built in 1843 and renovated three times, most recently in 1986, has problems with leaks, mold and crowding. Irvin said the court building's future is "up in the air" if a new one is built.

Robey last discussed the project publicly in June but said that because of time and financial constraints, "whatever plans we have will be left on the desk of the next executive." Robey has two years left on his second and final term.

Robey said he was approached by a private developer who suggested private design and financing. Building the structures without increasing the county's long-term debt caught his interest, he said.

Last month, Robey briefed the County Council members and decided to proceed.

"Somebody's got to start dealing with the issue," said Robey, who added that any developer can apply for the project.

The proposal was met with cautious approval by many officials, though county Republicans have generally opposed the idea for the complex because they are concerned it might interfere with school construction funding.

"If they find a way to do this and there's not a huge impact on the economics of the county, I applaud them," said Republican Del. Warren E. Miller said.

But if the move threatens the county's bond rating, "I'm against it," he said.

Judge Diane O. Leasure, the Circuit Court's administrative judge, said $1.5 million in courthouse renovations planned for this fiscal year will address only immediate needs.

"With our current situation, we really would not be in a position to request an additional judgeship because we have to certify that we have courtroom and chamber space for that judge," she said.

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said he likes the idea of looking to private business for a solution.

"I was against the county doing this a few years ago because it wasn't the right time," with huge school construction needs looming, Merdon said. "Now is the time to refocus."

County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said he is concerned about the cost and the scope, but he said, "I think it's fine to explore possibilities."

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