By JULIE E. GREENE
9:34 PM EST, February 19, 2013
The Washington County Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday night to enter into a purchase agreement to explore buying the former Allegheny Energy headquarters off Downsville Pike for its administrative offices.
The agreement, however, does not commit the school system to buying the property, school system officials said.
The agreement, which includes a $5.5 million purchase price, gives the school system a 45- to 78-day window, starting Wednesday, to check out the property and the building’s systems, Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said.
“We’re exploring options right now. We have not made a firm commitment” concerning the former Allegheny Energy property, school board Vice President Paul Bailey said after the board’s night meeting.
School board President Justin Hartings was not available for comment after Tuesday night’s school board meeting because he left the meeting early due to illness.
The vote came approximately three hours after the school board met with Hagerstown’s mayor and city council so city officials could give their pitch for the school board to relocate its administrative offices downtown. The meeting was held at the school system’s central office complex off Commonwealth Avenue, the same complex school board members decided in January that they would not invest future renovations in and would look for alternative options for the offices’ future.
Asked what message the board’s vote sends city officials, Bailey said, “I think the only message that it would send is that we’re ... anxious to get into a facility that is much needed to accommodate the central office staff here, not so much the elected board, but the people who have to work in this facility every day.
“I’m sure they will look at our action and determine the speed with which they must react now, too,” said Bailey, referring to city officials.
Asked if downtown was still an option, Bailey said, “I think all options are open.”
Hagerstown Mayor David S. Gysberts said city officials were informed of the school board’s intent to vote after the joint meeting Tuesday.
“I respect their need to do due diligence and to look at other alternatives,” he said Tuesday night. “I think that’s what everybody would expect for public officials to do.”
Gysberts equated the scenario to what happened when the city was looking at options for a stadium project last year.
“If you put all your eggs in one basket and you don’t do your due diligence, then you might get criticism on that other end, so I don’t fault them for taking a look at that property,” he said.
Rolling out the ‘red carpet’
The mayor remained confident the school board would still see “very clearly” the advantages of relocating downtown after they look closer at the former Allegheny Energy site.
“We’re very much courting them,” Gysberts said, adding that he would welcome the opportunity to tour potential downtown sites with school board members moving forward.
Gysberts said during the roughly 90-minute joint meeting that city officials were “pretty much prepared to roll out the red carpet” to get the school board to relocate downtown.
City officials didn’t present a formal pitch to the school board, but Councilman Lewis C. Metzner told the school board he could almost assure they wouldn’t need to look at acquisition or demolition costs, and that city officials realize the school system would need a dedicated parking deck with free parking.
Metzner said he intended to ask the Washington County commissioners at another Tuesday meeting about using at least part of money set aside initially for a downtown multiuse stadium to help the school board relocate downtown.
Board member Jacqueline Fischer said the school system would need a parking deck with close to 400 spaces.
Fischer also raised concerns about safety downtown and how nervous she was walking to a parking lot behind City Hall at night.
Gysberts said a lot of the safety issue is perception and that downtown is no more or less safe than other metro areas its size.
Hartings said during the joint meeting that city officials made a good case for downtown, but the school board cannot commit to anything without knowing the cost.
The school board will continue to investigate its options and their costs, including that of the former Allegheny Energy site, Hartings told city officials.
Concerns about Allegheny Energy site
Gysberts was critical of the former Allegheny Energy site as an option, telling school board officials he believed it had hidden costs. Gysberts said the site provides an economic development opportunity for the county and he hoped that would discourage the school board from picking that site.
Gysberts said Councilman Donald Munson, who was at the meeting, said the state built an Interstate 70 interchange near that site with “an eye” for that property driving economic development.
Later in the meeting, school board member Wayne Ridenour said he “wasn’t really thrilled with the argument against” the former Allegheny Energy site.
Ridenour said he’d waited 10 years for high-paying biotechnology and technology jobs to arrive there and hadn’t seen one.
“I don’t necessarily agree with you on that, that we would, by moving there, harm the downtown and harm the opportunity for more development to occur in that area,” Ridenour said.
The school system’s administrative offices could serve as a catalyst for development in the Downsville Pike area just as it could downtown, he said.
The 10435 Downsville Pike property includes 44.88 acres, according to online Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation information. It is owned by Vinayaka Missions America University, which has a Keedysville post office address.
Wilcox said the purchase agreement was with a family in India, who goes by the name on the sign outside the building.
Vinayaka Missions America University bought the building and acreage from the Fulton family for $8.45 million in August 2008. The India-based group had planned to open a university and hospital.
School system spokesman Richard Wright said a copy of the purchase agreement was not available Tuesday night.
There is a $150,000 fee tied to a 45-day window in which the school system can evaluate the building’s major systems to see if it could house the administrative offices, Wilcox said. But that money is refundable if the school system determines the property is not the place for it, Wilcox told board members, according to a video of the meeting.
If the school system needs more time, an additional 33 days will be provided at a cost of $50,000, which is not refundable, Wilcox said. So if the school system takes the full 78 days and decides not to buy the property, the school system will lose only the $50,000, he said.
If the school system were to end up buying the property or activate the other fees, the money would come from the school system’s fund balance, Wilcox said. The fund balance contains surplus funds from operational budgets.
Staff writer C.J. Lovelace contributed to this story.
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