By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun
5:13 PM EST, February 10, 2013
On a recent weeknight evening at the North Point Government Center, four young women were singing the barbershop classic "Goody Goodbye" in the auditorium. Upstairs, boys tangled on wrestling mats as parents and coaches watched.
In the six decades since it was built, the center at Wise Avenue and Merritt Boulevard has become a gathering spot for Dundalk residents. Kids play soccer on the fields during spring, residents gather for fireworks in July, and theater buffs act in plays throughout the year in a community performing arts program.
But residents fear they soon will lose the center. Last month, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's administration put the center and its grounds up for bid. It's part of a plan to sell some county land for private development, including parcels in Towson and Randallstown.
"It's not just a building to most of us," said Emily Mast, 19, who sings with the Young Women in Harmony group. "If this building's taken away, we don't know where we're going to go."
Kamenetz's plan also drew fire in Towson, where county officials considered moving the local fire station to a community park. After an outcry from area residents, the county reversed course, picking a different location for the firehouse so the park could be saved.
In Dundalk, the county proposal includes a reorganization of schools in the area — including the closure of the county's smallest elementary, Eastwood Center Elementary Magnet Program — drawing anger from some parents.
"It seems like this is a done deal," said Ericka Sapp, whose third-grade daughter attends Eastwood, just more than a block from her home. "My concern all along has been the lack of notice."
The county executive says selling the center's site could raise money for local school upgrades, while making government operations more efficient.
"Change is difficult," Kamenetz said. "I recognize that. We're trying make improvements and save taxpayer dollars at the same time."
The county executive also insists that the plans are not final.
"This all depends upon receiving appropriate bids," he said. "If we don't think we are getting sufficient income to accomplish all our goals, then we're going to go back to the drawing board."
But many Dundalk residents are fighting the plan. They're posting to Facebook, holding community meetings and, last month, held a rally outside the center. Some community leaders say they were blindsided by the sale proposal, which the county announced in December. And they point to the area's many vacant shopping centers, questioning whether new development at the government center would be successful.
"We want transparency in government," said Debbie Staigerwald, director of The Sky Is the Limit, a performing arts program that uses the North Point center for productions that include people with disabilities. "We want to be part of the decision. And we're not going to just sit back and take it anymore."
Staigerwald, who helped form a coalition called Dundalk United to oppose the plan, said community organizations have many questions that have gone unanswered by county leaders. Her group has raised thousands of dollars to renovate the theater and buy new lights and curtains, she said.
"Where else are we going to go?" she said.
The county plan would have a domino effect on schools in the area. The police precinct now located at North Point would move into the Eastwood Elementary building, forcing students there to relocate.
Superintendent Dallas Dance has recommended closing Eastwood Elementary at the end of the school year, and the school board is set to vote on the closure in March. Under the school officials' plan, Eastwood, Norwood Elementary and Holabird Middle School would become one school located on two campuses, organized as a K-8 magnet program focused on science, technology, engineering and math.
School system officials say that plan would balance enrollment at each school and offer magnet programs to more Dundalk students. But parents have raised a number of concerns, saying they will lose a tight-knit atmosphere at Eastwood.
"We've not seen respect for the process or for the people," said Rich Foot, a parent of two girls at Eastwood Elementary. "If this event is the opening act of Baltimore County's new way of doing business and dealing with parents, then it raises serious questions."
Sapp, who is now considering sending her daughter to a Catholic school, said she worries about the county's plan to put young students with older ones. Under the school system's proposal, children from pre-kindergarten to third-grade would attend school at what is now Norwood Elementary, while fourth- through eight-graders would go to Holabird Middle.
"These kids are going to get exposed to things that they wouldn't be exposed to at Eastwood," she said. "In this day and age, we have middle school kids that are pregnant, smoking, doing drugs. I think it's moronic to put a fourth-grader there."
A public hearing on the Eastwood closure is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Dundalk High School.
School officials say they don't yet know how much money the consolidations would save.
It is not the first time someone has proposed redeveloping the government center. Last year, developer John Vontran pitched the idea of razing the center to build big-box stores, then moving the government offices to a former Seagrams plant that he owns.
Many residents say they thought the idea was dead after Vontran's proposal was criticized at zoning hearings last year.
Still, some in the community think the government center has potential for successful commercial development. Amy Menzer, executive director of the Dundalk Renaissance Corp., said the group thinks the idea is worth considering.
"A lot is going to depend on what development is proposed, and how that affects who's currently there, and what opportunities the public has to be involved in the process of making decisions about it," she said, adding that the impact on existing stores also would have to be considered.
Many Dundalk residents are frustrated because the lack of retail options in the area forces them to shop elsewhere, Menzer said. In the past, county economic development officials have told the organization that a major problem is the size of lots on Merritt Boulevard — they are too shallow for big-box stores.
"The government center lot is a deeper lot, so it presents an opportunity in that regard," she said.
Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, said the community could end up with better facilities under the county plan. "The heating and air conditioning systems are all outdated," he said of the government center, a former school built in 1953.
Olszewski — who faced angry questions last month when residents packed a meeting room at the North Point Library to discuss the county proposal —- stressed that he would not support the plan unless it's guaranteed that all ballfields will be replaced, and that community programs get new homes.
The county's request for proposals requires any developer who buys the site to replace the recreation fields. Responses are due in April.
"At the end of the day, if the ballfields are taken away and not replaced nearby, if all the programs are not replaced and housed in a better place, then I will not support it," Olszewski said.
John Long of the environmental organization Clean Bread and Cheese Creek said the county isn't considering the environmental impact of new development on a stream that runs behind the government center. The county's bid request makes no mention of the stream, he said.
Long also noted the perception that the county responded to more affluent residents of Towson, who fought the county plan to move the fire station to Towson Manor Park.
"People of Dundalk are hard-working, for the most part blue-collar people," Long said. "And that doesn't mean that they deserve any less consideration."
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