Building a legacy in Harford and beyond

One Bel Air man has been a constant in Harford's construction world through the years

From Baltimore's Camden Station and American Visionary Art Museum to schools throughout the area, Warren Hamilton has helped bring them all to life.

The Parkville native, now 64 years old, has quietly risen through the ranks at a major regional construction management company, J. Vinton Schafer & Sons Inc. Last year, he became president of the firm he joined in 1980.

Under Hamilton's watch, the Abingdon-based company has successfully completed contracts on high-profile building projects in Maryland and other states, including many public buildings in Harford.

Hamilton has also achieved another feat of professional longevity, having served as an unpaid, citizen member on the county's Board of Estimates, which green-lights funds for contracts and projects, for 24 years. He seemed surprised himself that each new County Council during that period has wanted to reappoint him.

"It's a job I really enjoy, because it gives me a chance to be on the other side of the table and actually see how we are procuring and spending citizens' money," Hamilton explained about his estimates board role, during an interview in his spacious office, filled with golf paintings and sculptures.

Besides the estimates board and the construction company, Hamilton has been a familiar face with numerous local groups. He is a former president of the Harford Business Roundtable for Education and is a member of organizations like the Greater Excellence in Education Foundation and the Harford Community College Foundation. Most recently, he joined the board of Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding.

The Bel Air resident is passionate about supporting his community and creating an equal playing field for underserved residents.

On a recent Monday, he was preparing to read to second-grade students across the street from his company, at William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary School in Abingdon – in a building, he quickly pointed out, that could definitely use a modernization.

Hamilton is always looking out for such signs of lagging progress, having overseen renovations of buildings ranging from North Harford High School to St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, the latter his first assignment as a newly-hired project manager at his company in 1980.

J. Vinton Schafer managed the construction of Red Pump Elementary in Bel Air, which opened in 2011, and Patterson Mill Middle/High School in the Bel Air South, opened in 2007. The company has done numerous school projects in Harford, including the replacement for Forest Hill Elementary and a renovation at Meadowvale Elementary, he said.

"I can understand that if someone is on the outside looking in, [they see] we get a fair share of those [projects], and that is because we are school builders," Hamilton said about the number local projects his firm has been awarded. Those jobs were overseen by Harford County Public Schools and the contracts were awarded by the Board of Education; they don't go through the county board of estimates.

He pointed out the company in the past 10 years has built, or is building, 91 school projects valued at nearly $1 billion. In addition to Red Pump, Patterson Mill, North Harford, Forest Hill and Meadowvale, the company also built St. Margaret Parish's Mary Magdalen Middle School on Route 22 east of Bel Air.

"For perspective, during this same period we have completed K-12 school projects in 11 Maryland school systems, two Pennsylvania districts and Arlington, Virginia," Hamilton said. "You go where they are, and we have been fortunate, but we do a good job."

Higher education facilities are also part of the firm's construction portfolio. J. Vinton Schafer built the new John S. & James L. Knight Hall journalism building and renovated Tawes Hall at the University of Maryland, College Park, Hamilton's alma mater.

"I got the best letter [about Knight Hall], from the head of the journalism school," he said proudly about the $30 million project's completion.

Closer to home, J. Vinton Schafer itself continues to change. The 96-year-old company was acquired by the nationwide Quandel Enterprises in 2010, which Hamilton said meant joining "a great bunch of folks."

"The similarities between our firm and theirs was uncanny," Hamilton said. He was senior vice president at the time, a title he had held since the mid-1980s.

'Level of integrity'

In addition to schools, J. Vinton Schafer has received some county government projects since Hamilton joined the board of estimates, but he pointed out there has been no conflict of interest with that.

Most recently, the company built the county's $40 million Department of Emergency Services headquarters, which was dedicated in November. Hamilton, who attended the dedication, said he would have abstained from that vote at the Board of Estimates but he happened to be absent when the contract was being approved.

"It is rare that that happens," he said about his company's projects overlapping with his duties on the estimates board. He pointed out the board is just the awarding authority; the county staff evaluates bids and makes recommendations based on the contract specifications. The board does, however, have the final say and, hence, oversight of the staff's work.

"The outsiders sometimes say, 'How can you do that?'" he said about his role with the county. "It's really a non-issue. It is a non-issue."

County Council President Richard Slutzky, a council member since 2002, said he has known Hamilton for several years in other capacities and was happy to keep Hamilton on the estimates board, where Hamilton is known for keeping a keen eye to see the county is getting the most for its money.

"Everybody had confidence that he brought a nice experience to it, and he has been in the business world and been involved with a lot of the kinds of projects, when you talk about funding construction, he has a lot of experience," Slutzky said.

"His building experience is pretty valuable," he said of Hamilton. "I think he brings a level of integrity that most people are comfortable with."

Billy Boniface, county director of administration who just finished up eight years leading the County Council in December, said he first met Hamilton when Boniface was elected to the council in 2006.

"I had lunch with him one day and was highly impressed," Boniface said. "His knowledge has been instrumental in making sure we are complying with the procurement process."

When Slutzky was elected to succeed him last fall, Boniface said, he recommended Hamilton to Slutzky.

"He has got the historic knowledge, since he has been on it [estimates] so long, and from the construction industry, he brings that technical component to it," Boniface said. "You see some things he brings up that I would have never thought of."

History in Harford

In December, J. Vinton Schafer moved from an 8,700-square-foot office to a 14,000-square-foot space around the corner, in William Paca Business Park off Route 7.

The acquisition and leadership change were part of a focused plan, Hamilton said, he also admitted he never exactly planned on spending his working life in the construction industry, as such.

"If you asked me in high school about the chance that I would be an engineer, I would say slim to none," he said, noting he "enjoyed school" but "was not a shining star."

Nevertheless, he said, when he was growing up, people were expected to stay in one place.

"When you took a job, it was always 'a career.' Now it's not quite that way," he said.

Hamilton's grandparents bought a farm on Thomas Run Road near Bel Air, but his parents moved to Baltimore County in the 1940s. After graduating from Parkville High School, Hamilton spent four years in the Air Force, stationed at Dover Air Force Base.

He then enrolled at University of Maryland, completing a degree in civil engineering in 1976.

His parents moved back to the Thomas Run property, and he and his wife, Kathy, also eventually moved to Bel Air. Their three daughters all attended Bel Air schools.

Hamilton, who was PTA president of Bel Air Elementary and accepted the new school on behalf of the PTA, recalled the controversy over leaving the old school in place, "which would have essentially left the students with no playground or grass area."

Although many people supported him on the issue, Hamilton was the only one willing to testify to the Board of Education on the need to ditch the old building, which eventually happened.

"It was a little upsetting," he recalled of the experience.

But bad experience or not, Hamilton has pressed on with community involvement. He has chaired four school redistricting committees, noting: "You don't get a lot of friends from that. It's a serious business."

He has also served on Susquehanna Workforce Network Youth Council, the Workforce Investment Board and the Board of Trustees for Grace United Methodist Church in Aberdeen.

And, he's been especially committed to his role with the Harford-based Greater Excellence in Education Foundation, explaining many in the county do not realize how much some students are in need and can shine with just a little help from people who care and want to help them succeed.

The foundation works to improve education outcomes for middle and high school students in Harford public schools, regardless of their economic circumstances, and to provide college and career counseling.

"If we do nothing else, we have to level that playing field from day one," he said.

'I enjoy it all'

Construction and development, meanwhile, continue to change around him, Hamilton said. School projects are cyclical, to some extent, he explained, and the building boom of the post-World War II era means his firm has found plenty of business in rebuilding or upgrading schools constructed in the 1950s and 1960s.

Hospitals and health care agencies are also ripe for redesign, he said,

"Nobody wants to go to an old hospital. It's got to be current, it's got to be state-of-the-art, and, frankly, doctors and nurses, they don't want to work in an old hospital," he said.

And then there are the glitzier, specialty projects. Hamilton recalled working on, such as Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum, which opened in 1995, or working with curators on a renovation of city's Walters Art Museum.

"I have a lot of favorite projects. Part of what I like most is getting to meet some of those people and seeing what they do and how they do it," he said, calling Rebecca Hoffberger, founder of the Visionary Museum, "a great person."

"She's just a dynamic personality and a lot of fun. We really got to work with her to bring her vision to reality," he said.

Turning the old Camden Station into the Sports Legends Museums, "right in the heartbeat of Baltimore," was "really a lot of fun," he said. "The old basement had to be sort of hand-dug out because it was really just a fancy sort of crawl space, a little bigger than that. Now it's a great spot."

He also "really enjoyed" renovating Baltimore's Penn Station in the early 1980s, noting "it could use it again right now."

"In the middle of that big lobby, there were three domes that just looked black and dirty. Well, they'd been blackened out for the war [World War II]. We took those stained glass domes all apart, sent them to New York to be renovated, cleaned up, put it back," Hamilton said. "Those are 25-foot stained glass domes, three of them, Tiffany glass; it is gorgeous."

"You get challenges on the job like that, to find the original marble [that] came from Italy – can we get some more to do some [matching] marble when we're renovating, ...tile that is no longer manufactured," he said. "I enjoy it all."

Watching his work stand the test of time is what makes working in the construction industry so rewarding, Hamilton said.

"The best part about it is, when we are done a job, it's there. You can put your hands around it, you can show people," he said. "I don't know anybody in our business that doesn't take pride in it."

Plus, he added: "You meet a lot of nice people, a lot of interesting people."

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
39°