HCC's purchase of historic Belmont leaves questions

November 30, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

After years of controversy, Howard Community College owns the 18th-century Belmont Conference Center in Elkridge, but the transfer from the college's foundation does not resolve the thorny issue among residential neighbors of how the property should be used.

The big question is whether the college can make the secluded estate pay for itself without uses objectionable to the public or damaging to the historic ambience.

College President Kate Hetherington seems determined to do make it work, though she said Belmont still doesn't pay for itself.

"No, [Belmont] is not breaking even," she confirmed. But major improvements, including a geothermal heating and cooling system, are in the works, as well as renovations to expand the kitchen and other facilities for college students studying hospitality and culinary arts.

"I think, at the end of the day, when people in the community see this wonderful facility being preserved for educational purposes and people being put out into the work force, they will say it was the wise thing to do," Hetherington said.

Not everyone is so confident, however.

Despite the Nov. 18 closing of the deal in a Columbia law office, Cathy Hudson, chairwoman of the community-based Save Belmont coalition, said the community still wants to know who will own the adjacent 13-acre Dobbin property, whether plans for a new access from Landing Road will be pursued and why the college continues to spend money on the project that residents feel should go toward scholarships and expanding main-campus programs such as nursing.

"Four years later, the road issue is not resolved, and Belmont is bleeding the college" financially, Hudson said. "We started with a project that was going to use no public money."

Hetherington disputed that view and said the college has no plans to pursue the access from Landing Road.

Belmont is reached via a narrow one-lane road through woods off Montgomery Road. It is surrounded by Patapsco Valley State Park.

"We're looking to meet critical demands of the work force. Hospitality and culinary management is one of the top 10 programs where you need people," she said.

Hetherington said the college plans to eventually sell the 13-acre adjacent Dobbin property and is moving forward with the design for renovations of several outbuildings. Belmont is used as a business conference center, for weddings and private parties and as a training facility for HCC hospitality and culinary students.

Hudson said she has mixed feelings about the change in ownership.

"It will be nice to know who actually owns it. I feel like I've been dealing with people behind a shroud," she said about trying to get information from the more-remote Howard Community College Educational Foundation board.

Hetherington said Howard County provided half of the $4.4 million for the purchase deal, with the rest coming from donors and the foundation, the previous owner.

That might sound confusing, but Hetherington said donors can't legally give money directly to the college, but instead must donate funds to the foundation, the college's fundraising arm. All of the donations went to retire some of the outstanding debt on the property, she said.

The college foundation bought the secluded 81-acre conference center/estate in 2004. Controversy erupted shortly thereafter, partly over $1.3 million provided by developer Harry "Chip" Lundy, a foundation board member who originally hoped to build senior homes on part of the land, sharing the profits with the foundation.

After residents organized opposition, that plan stalled and at one point Howard County government was to buy the estate. That too fell through.

Lundy was repaid by the foundation in March, removing any claim he had to the Dobbin property.

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