An Open Letter to Our Neighbors:
In recent months, there has been a great deal of attention focused on Washington College’s interest in acquiring the SFC John H. Newman Armory. Throughout this process, my communications have largely been directed to the Town Council. In conversations with many in the community, I have come to appreciate that there is some uncertainty regarding how we arrived at this moment. By this open letter, I would like to share the College’s perspective.
Late last spring, we learned that the Town decided to exercise its option to acquire the Armory according to the State’s surplus property protocol. At this time, the College informed the Town of its renewed interest in the Armory.
In June, the College submitted to the Town Council a Mission Statement outlining the College’s intentions for the property, assuring public access, and committing to extending the Chester River promenade from Wilmer Park, across the College’s current properties and through the Armory property. The College agreed to reimburse the Town for the expenses associated with an environmental hazards report commissioned by the Town on the Armory property. The College further assured the Council that it would make available the Armory for local charities when their events did not conflict with College needs. In exchange, the College requested the opportunity to acquire the Armory for the cost of the outstanding mortgage (approximately $320,000). This is the sum the State of Maryland would expect from the Town were it to acquire title to the property.
On July 18, the Town Council voted 4-1, in the verbatim transcript from that meeting, “to assign ownership of the Armory to Washington College, with the understanding that costs borne to the Town would be reimbursed by the College, the Mission Statement would be included as a Memorandum of Understanding, there would be a connection from Quaker Neck Road to the river walk and the College would direct consultant work to tie into the Town’s plans.”
As the Mission Statement was converted to a Memorandum of Understanding, a host of extraneous issues were brought into the transaction, including requirements: that the College build three 25-foot wide walkways on the Armory property; that the College make up the financial shortfall the Town was experiencing in the construction of the rails-to-trails project; that the College install a trail along the vacant property it owns from the railroad bed on Route 298 up to the intersection with Route 213, then north on Route 213 to the vehicular entrance to Kent Plaza; and, that the College form a joint venture with a small conference hotel with restaurant as a part of its redevelopment of the Armory. These new requirements were then endorsed by a vote of 3-2, with Councilmen Gatto, Anthony, and Stetson in the majority.
While Washington College is willing to accept the financial challenge of rehabilitating the Armory (including all liability for any environmental hazards both in the building and on/under the property), and making it available once more for public access, we are not in a position to accept the extraneous requirements proposed by Councilmen Gatto, Anthony, and Stetson, a fact I have conveyed to the Town Council. I have also conveyed the urgency of resolving this issue by mid-November so that the College could incorporate any environmental remediation at the Armory into the planned cleanup of the adjoining brownfield site this winter. On October 21, we received a confidential counter-proposal that eliminated some of the earlier requirements but inserted new provisions that would compel the College to incur additional and substantial financial burdens in relation to this transaction. We now appear to be at an impasse.
I regret that the negotiations for the Chestertown Armory have taken this turn. Despite best efforts on both sides, we seem unable to achieve an agreement that would allow the College to rehabilitate the site and the building as originally envisioned. Unless the Town Council is prepared to honor the commitment made to the College in their vote of July 18, we have no choice but to decline the opportunity to acquire the Chestertown Armory.
Even if the Town were to proceed as we agreed this past July, Washington College would still need to negotiate with the Maryland Historic Trust the nature and terms of easements that they would place on the property and the structure before its transfer from State ownership. We would need some assurance that the College’s plans for rehabilitation and use of the property, for ourselves and for the community, would be congruent with any historic easements.
As for Washington College, we will focus our efforts over the next several months on remediating the environmental hazards on the former Alger Oil and Crop Production Services properties. We will launch an intensive effort with our architects to develop complementary plans for a new College boathouse and a new academic building that will house our Center for the Environment & Society. We remain committed to extending the Chester River promenade along our waterfront. Finally, we will begin the necessary private fundraising efforts to bring this vision of a world-class collegiate waterfront to reality.
We wish the Council well in its disposition of the Armory property. As disappointed as we are that we were unable to reach agreement on the Armory, we remain committed to continuing our productive partnership with the Town, County, and Eastern Shore.
It will be our pleasure to welcome the community to participate in the exciting programming that will take place at our new waterfront campus. In the interim, we invite you to watch our progress and we would welcome your support.
Mitchell B. Reiss