The University of Maryland, Baltimore wants to sell the imposing mansion northbound travelers see as they cross the Susquehanna River on Interstate 95 because it isn’t attracting enough conferences.
The sprawling Port Deposit mansion, built in 1938 by industrialist Donaldson Brown, is one of Maryland’s most visible great homes, with more than 20 bedrooms, two spiral staircases and a breathtaking view of the river from a bluff on the Cecil County side.
“He spared no expense when he constructed this property,” said Del. Kevin Hornberger, a Cecil County Republican. “It’s really a treasure.”
The Board of Public Works is poised to vote Dec. 6 on proposal to declare the 23-acre Donaldson Brown Center surplus state property. It was scheduled for a vote Wednesday, but the vote was postponed Tuesday after the governor’s office heard from local opponents of the plan, including a granddaughter of Brown.
The surplus declaration is a legally required step before the University System of Maryland, which owns the property, can complete its planned sale to a private developer who will put the center back on the Cecil County tax rolls. The selling price is $2.5 million.
The University System Board of Regents approved the plan to sell in June. University officials told the board it would take $6 million over the next few years to make needed repairs and would continue to lose money. The system owns the property, but the mansion is administered by the Baltimore campus.
The proposal has divided Cecil County’s legislative delegation.
Hornberger, who is leading the opposition to the sale, said the university system hasn’t paid sufficient attention to the property because of its relatively remote location.
“It doesn’t get the tender loving care the main campus does,” he said. Hornberger would like to see the town of Port Deposit take over the property.
State Sen. Wayne Norman, also a Republican, doesn’t think that idea is feasible. He said he doubts the town has the financial resources to maintain the property — a concern echoed by university officials.
“I would hate to see it as an abandoned property or in disrepair,” Norman said. “It’s a wonderful asset for Cecil County.”
The university flirted with the idea of selling the center in 2006, when it sought bids for the property but ended up rejecting them all. Officials at the time decided to keep ownership and lease the center. But the regents were also facing a backlash by lawmakers representing Cecil County who wanted the property to stay in the university’s hands.
Among the lawmakers who helped scuttle the deal 11 years ago was then-Del. Peter Franchot, who now sits on the public works board as comptroller. A spokesman for the Montgomery County Democrat said the comptroller doesn’t comment on agenda items before board meetings.
Hornberger said university officials agreed in 2006 to drop plans to sell the property in exchange for lawmakers’ agreement not to introduce legislation that would have put new restrictions on the system’s authority to sell off properties. He said the current proposal reneges on that commitment.
Dawn Rhodes, chief business and financial officer for the University of Maryland, Baltimore, wasn’t with the university at the time, but said she’s not aware of any such deal.
“I’m confident that we never made such a commitment,’ she said.
The town of Port Deposit and a member of the Brown family want the university to transfer the property to their control for community use and agricultural education, Hornberger said.
Mayor Wayne Tome said Port Deposit officials did not learn the university was seeking a buyer until it was too late to put together a competitive proposal. Tome said the town did not have the money to purchase the property, but had hoped the university would grant it to the municipality.
"We don’t want to see it go to a private owner,” Tome said.
The 41,000-square-foot Georgian manor was donated to the University of Maryland in 1965 by the family of Donaldson Brown, who died that year at 80. The original plan was to use the property for an agricultural extension service affiliated with the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
Brown, born in Baltimore in 1885, was an executive and corporate director for DuPont and General Motors who pioneered the use of financial measures such as return on investment and return on equity. A business wunderkind, he became a DuPont director and treasurer of the company at 33.
At GM, he served as vice chairman of the board and led a corporate reorganization that centralized control of its component companies.
The mansion has been used as a conference center since it was given to the university. It is also rented out as a venue for weddings and other special events.
University officials say business has been slow and maintenance costs are high.
The intended buyer is Mount Ararat LLC, named after the road leading to the center. According to officials, Mount Ararat plans to construct additional buildings on the property and to operate a conference center and boutique resort.
University officials said the center is in “fair condition, but requires substantial investment to remain useful.”
Under the deal, the university will have the power to bar any activities “harmful to to the reputation or educational mission of UMB.”
Officials of Mount Ararat could not be reached to comment. Its lead partner, John Petro of Prince George’s County, died earlier this year, but Rhodes says his partners intend to carry out the deal. Officials of Mount Ararat could not be reached for comment, but Rhodes said their plans call for 62 rooms in the resort and 10,000 square feet of meeting facilities.
The plan faces opposition from Gabrielle Buck, Brown’s granddaughter, who owns the 786-acre Mount Ararat Farm that surrounds the center. Wendy Culberson, her lawyer, said Buck originally approved Petro’s plans for the center, but withdrew her support after they began having disagreements.
Buck eventually made her own offer matching Petro’s price, but the university rejected her proposal. University officials said the offer came in after they already had a signed contract with Mount Ararat LLC.
Culberson also said university officials kept Buck in the dark about their plans. She said she plans to make her case that the board should block the sale.
Board approval of surplus designation next month would not be the final word. Details of the deal would go to the General Assembly’s budget committees, which would have 45 days to review and comment. The board would then vote again on the actual sale of the property.