Howard County is planning to buy the historic Belmont Conference Center estate in Elkridge from Howard Community College, although officials are still unsure what they will do with the 68-acre property.
"It's a historic treasure and we're certainly working hard to create a community resource," County Executive Ken Ulman said. "We've got some different thoughts and proposals about environmental education and a place for local groups to hold meetings."
Ulman said the county had been wary of purchasing the property because it can be expensive to maintain. But when the college received an offer for $2.7 million, he couldn't let "one of the few historic gems that's left in the county" go at such a low price.
"I simply hadn't wanted to take it on, but when it came up that that was the price, that convinced me," he said.
Since HCC's Educational Foundation bought the 18th Century estate from the American Chemical Society in 2004 for $5.2 million, it has used the facility for the school's culinary and hospitality programs, although more expansive plans were never realized. The property was also rented out for special events, such as weddings, business meetings, parties and picnics.
Faced with budgetary strains, the college put the Belmont estate on the market in September 2009. HCC had planned on operating it until a buyer was found, but when the economic recession caused a decline in business, the college closed the center on Dec. 31, 2010.
Because the county gave the college $2.6 million to use toward the purchase and renovation of the estate, it has the right of first refusal to buy the property. The low offer is what made Ulman decide to exercise that right.
After forgiving the college of its debt, the county will only have to pay $89,188 to buy the property, according to county spokesman Kevin Enright. He said the county submitted a purchase agreement this week. After the agreement is finalized, the county will make sure the property has no structural, environmental, maintenance or other problems, Enright said.
County Council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat whose district includes the Belmont estate and who in the past has been critical of using taxpayer dollars to maintain the property, said she is going to wait until after the study period to take a position on the county's decision to buy Belmont.
"I am waiting for the county to produce a plan for the property and the expenses and benefits involved," Watson said.
However, Watson added, "it would be unfortunate if the county lost its investment" by letting the property be sold to another buyer at such a low price.
HCC has no regrets
HCC Board of Trustees Chairwoman Katherine Rensin said the college "had received interest from a number of different parties" regarding the sale of the Belmont property, but the $2.7 million offer was the first.
The county is an appropriate purchaser for the estate, she said, noting "what would be nice is it would be for the use of all citizens in the county" and it could serve as a "really unique" public amenity for the eastern portion of the county.
Though HCC was criticized by some for purchasing the property and for its ambitious plans for the site, Rensin said the college has no regrets.
"I think it was a wonderful idea that we bought the property, We had a great intention for using it," she said, but "the economic times are such that everything has changed."
With the college's enrollment growing at a rate of 9 to 12 percent per semester, Rensin said "we really needed the funds to support our students."
In deciding what do with the property, Ulman said the county is working on different proposals with private sector partners who would be able to use and help maintain the property. One of the potential partners the county is talking to, he said, is the Howard County Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental educational group and land trust.
With private partners, Ulman said, the county would not to have to spend taxpayer money to maintain the property.
"I want to see no taxpayer dollars put into the operating budget," he said, adding "we reserve the right to sell if in fact we can't operate it in the public's interest."
Ulman said the estate will definitely not be run as a high-end retreat center because it's not economically feasible to do so. He also said he anticipates the county will eliminate some of the property's more costly amenities, such as the gym and swimming pool.
"If you trim down what you're using it for, you can keep the expenses in check," Ulman said.
Weddings, historic programs
John Byrd, director of the county's Department of Recreation and Parks, which would oversee the property, said the county would continue to rent the facility for weddings and other events but otherwise would likely not have direct involvement over the operation of the estate.
"We would consider the property for environmental programs, historic programs and a more passive type of use," he said.
Cathy Hudson, one of the Elkridge residents upset by HCC's original plans to add new structures to the property, including a deal for a senior housing development, said she would love to see the property used for historic and environmental programs.
"There's no place down this way that is an environmental kind of center," she said.
Though the county hasn't finalized its plans, Hudson said she is comfortable knowing county officials understand the importance of retaining the historic nature of the property.
"I think right now there's good faith on all sides," she said. "I will go forward trusting that good faith."