UM system won't sell Cecil County mansion

Developer might lease, renovate and manage the 20-acre estate


The University System of Maryland has decided not to sell a Cecil County mansion that it has used as a conference center and instead might lease the estate to a developer that would renovate and manage it, system officials said yesterday.

The proposed sale of the Riverfront Conference Center, a 21-bedroom Georgian-style manor, perched high on a bluff over the Susquehanna River, angered local officials, residents and the family of Donaldson Brown, the General Motors Corp. executive who donated the property to the university system in 1965.

After being grilled last month by members of two House of Delegates committees, University System Chancellor William E. Kirwan sent a letter to state lawmakers this week saying that the 20-acre property is off the market.

Joseph Vivona, chief operating officer of the university system, said yesterday that five people had submitted bids to buy the estate but that officials had rejected all of them, in part because they preferred to retain ownership of the property and lease it.

The university system is considering an offer from an unidentified developer willing to make major renovations to the mansion, adding beds and air conditioning, and making it a more profitable conference center, Vivona said.

If such an arrangement was approved by the Board of Regents, the developer would lease the property from the university system, Vivona said. The details of the plan and its cost have not been disclosed, he said.

"What we've told people is that we're not interested in selling at this time, and we are looking at a public-private partnership arrangement where a person interested in improving the property would represent a fund source" for renovating the building, Vivona said.

System officials will meet with local residents to get their opinions about any expansion or changes at the mansion, he said.

"That was a lesson learned. We should have provided more information to the community about this process," Vivona said.

Walter E. Buck III, husband of the granddaughter of Donaldson Brown and manager of the family's 800-acre dairy farm, which surrounds the mansion, said he doesn't know what to make of the university system's decision not to sell the building.

Buck expressed fears in January that the wishes of the donor might be violated if the mansion was sold to a developer instead of being used for educational purposes.

He said yesterday that he still doesn't know what the university system is going to do with the property because officials haven't discussed their plans with him. The state could still sell the property, he said.

"I'm glad they learned their lesson," Buck said of the decision to hold community meetings. "It remains to be seen, however, what will happen with the place. Nobody knows but the Board of Regents. They're the ones who control its destiny."

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