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Chili cookoff sponsors hope to taste success in fixing water tower

Looming figuratively in the background at the Roland Park Chili Cookoff on Feb. 22 was the old Roland Water Tower.

The goal of the cookoff, besides getting into the spirit of the Olympics and bringing a bit of warmth to winter, was also to raise money for the Greater Roland Park Open Space Campaign and its most immediate priority, saving the iconic tower from more than 80 years of pigeon poop and decay.

Proceeds from Saturday's cookoff, which drew several hundred people to the Radisson Cross Keys Hotel to sample 12 different homemade chilis, will be added to $1.4 million already raised for the Open Space Campaign, said Mary Page Michel, a co-leader of the campaign.

The Open Space Campaign also seeks to make the Stony Run path more pedestrian-friendly and to buy Baltimore Country Club excess green space at Falls and Hillside roads and build a community park there to preserve the land from possible development, Michel said.

The water tower, Stony Run and country club land acquisition are the top three priorities of the campaign, and the money is being raised collectively for all three projects, she said.

The water tower project is farthest along, with $837,000 raised so far, including a $250,000 matching grant from the state legislature, another $250,000 pledged by the Roland Park Community Foundation, and $337,000 from Baltimore City, Michel said. She said city officials at one time considered razing the long-unused tower at Roland Avenue and University Parkway, in the Hoes Heights neighborhood.

"They gave us the money they were going to spend to knock it down," Michel said.

The $837,000 is less than $100,000 short of what Roland Park community leaders need to complete the first phase of the tower project, which calls for exterior renovations and major roof work. Michel and Phil Spevak, past president of the Roland Park Civic League and also a co-leader of the Open Space campaign, said the community hopes to start the exterior work this year.

Already done in November 2012 was the removal of a large mound of pigeon guano that had accumulated over the years as pigeons roosted near the top of the eight-sided, 148-foot-tall tower, which was built in 1904 and served as a working water tower until the advent of the city's reservoir system in the 1930s.

Phase Two calls for fixing the stairs that lead from the bottom to the top of the tower and fixing the landing at the top, Michel said. Also planned in the second phase is building a museum-like display area of historical artifacts about Hoes Heights and Roland Park, Michel said.

She said the work would include creating utilities where none exist, including electricity, a water and plumbing, at least for a toilet. There is some talk of building an elevator too, she said.

The third and final phase as called for in the city-approved Greater Roland Park Master Plan entails building a pocket park around the tower, which currently has security fencing to keep the public from walking too close to the crumbling tower.

Also ongoing are efforts to improve the Stony Run path, Michel said.

The community foundation and Friends of Stony Run hope to build a pedestrian bridge just north of University Parkway to enable people to access Wyman Park without having to go up and over the parkway.

In an effort to get the city to invest in the Stony Run path, community leaders are also trying to acquire slivers of privately-owned rights-of-way that intersect Stony Run, because the city is reluctant to invest in land that is partly private, Michel said.

"We've purchased a number of properties already," she said.

And, community leaders are trying to make safer crossings, especially for children, where the Stony Run path connects to Wyndhurst Avenue and Cold Spring Lane, she said.

The state legislature has approved $1.2 million in Stony Run grants from the Department of Natural Resources, Michel said.

The cookoff, with entries ranging from Holy Smokes to Screaming Banshee chili, also served as a promotional tool for the Open Space Campaign.

Michel sat at a table by the entrance to the cookoff room. Next to her was a large poster that detailed the campaign.

And many community leaders were in attendance, including one of the 12 chefs, apron-clad Roland Park Civic League President Chris McSherry.

Her entry? Hearty English Chili, "with a little bit of a kick," she said.

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