Commissioner Richard Weaver proposed the idea of using the auditorium at the former North Carroll High School in Hampstead for events at the most recent Board of County Commissioners meeting.
He was met with opposition for multiple reasons, including the costs of use and required repairs for the unused part of the facility, but the proposition gave room to discuss what the future of the closed school could be.
Commissioners agreed by the end of the meeting they were in need of a long-term plan to be able to begin directing resources to execute it.
“The sheriff has volunteered to take care of the auditorium, as far as opening and closing the facility,” Weaver, R-District 2, said during the Oct. 25 meeting, “as well as taking care of cleaning and any other issues that pop up in the facility.
“I’m asking for limited use of the facility,” he said. “We are already paying for it, it’s already there, it’s in great condition as you see.”
Weaver pointed to a photograph of the auditorium that showed plastic protective covering on the seats and a view from the stage. He wanted to allow the use for two years — until the three-year limit the commissioners set as their deadline to make a decision on the building comes.
But Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said he was concerned with additional costs right off the bat, as the county already pays an average of $35,000 per month to maintain the building with a total annual allotment of $500,000.
“To what extent has the sheriff said he would clean, maintain, open and close [the auditorium]?” Wantz asked. “I'm a little bit unclear as to what that involves — because does that involve people to actually be there? Who’s paying them to be there?”
Weaver said the shifts would be split as the officers are already there for the training academy housed in the former school.
Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, said he was concerned with the claim it won’t cost money.
“I’ve heard many times from the sheriff’s department ‘this won’t cost us a thing,’” Frazier said. “And then later we are putting tens of thousand of dollars into the sheriff’s academy. So I am very skeptical when I hear it’s not going to cost us a thing.”
Wantz said because the building is so old it will also cost much more to heat the auditorium — which would require heating the entire building — so that people occupying it would be comfortable.
County staff also confirmed there were repairs that would need to be made to eliminate tripping risks on sunken parts of the sidewalk and parts of concrete stairs that have broken. A barrier would also have to be put up in lieu of the gate that is currently by the auditorium in order to keep people out.
“People have been jumping the gates, gates have been left open, we need to put a permanent barrier,” Public Works Director Jeff Castonguay said at the meeting.
“My big concern, Commissioner Weaver, is that it would be a shame to have to see the building get knocked down,” said Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5. “I don't want to see anything shorten that [three-year] window that's already that tight.
“I'd hate for there to be a use that causes something to fail and we have to cut that time short,” Howard said, “make it so we we can’t even have the Sheriff’s Office in there anymore. You don’t know what’s going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
The Office of the State Fire Marshal cleared the fire alarm system and the sprinklers are functioning, according to Weaver, but Howard said that the additional stress could bring up unexpected repair costs the county won’t be able to fund.
Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, said he wanted to know where the Town of Hampstead was with their potential consideration of rezoning the property so that there could be a business use. That, he said, would be a key step toward making a decision on the future of the building.
County Attorney Tim Burke said he would drop off a petition to rezone the North Carroll High School property to the Town of Hampstead the following day.
“My sense is, look, this is an odd situation,” Rothschild said, “and this is like trying to keep the Empire State building open so we could run 7-Eleven out of the first floor.
“We need to get it rezoned,” he said. “We need to sell it, and if we can’t sell it, we need to knock it down. … If we got the zoning, I might — with reservations — say, let’s use it in the interim until we can sell it. But we can’t even sell it until we get the zoning.”
Hampstead Mayor Chris Nevin said this week that “other than the petition for rezoning, there has been no formal communication from Carroll County government.”
The last time he spoke with the county regarding North Carroll was two months ago, he said.
“There hasn’t bee much in the way of communication related to the property other than their intent they want it rezoned — or the ultimatum was they’re going to knock it down,” Nevin said. “There’s a lot of goal-post making. It doesn’t look good for that building based on what the staff has written and the communication we’ve had to date.”
The petition to rezone the property was delivered Friday, Oct. 26 and Nevin said the Town of Hampstead is at the very beginning of that process — which will include notices posted and public hearings before a vote is taken.
Rothschild also brought up a letter written by Department of Management and Budget Director Ted Zaleski to the commissioners on Oct. 24 that has been made public and posted in the Hampstead-Manchester Online Community Facebook page.
“Fiscal concerns compel me to argue against making use of the auditorium,” Zaleski wrote. “We can’t afford this building. A debatable position I’m sure, but when I look at our fiscal position, pressures on services, facilities and infrastructure, and looming fiscal concerns I feel comfortable taking the position: We can’t afford this building.
“If someone came to you with a proposal to give you a big, old building that needed tens of millions of dollars spent on it so that you could use the gym, the auditorium and a handful of rooms, I don’t think you would be interested.”
With a recent District 1 meeting focused on the future Charles Carroll Community Center, which is being built where the former Charles Carroll Elementary School stood, Zaleski also wrote in his letter that something similar could be considered for North Carroll as well.
“I think we would be in a stronger position planning for [a] Charles Carroll type replacement,” he wrote. “I don’t know where the money would come from but I’d rather be trying to figure that out for a smaller new facility than try to figure out where a much larger amount of money for an aging facility is going to come from. … The approximately $0.5 million [per] year we are currently spending could support a new facility and free up some funding in our tight Operating Plan.”
Howard said at the commissioners meeting he would be interested in that idea. “If you said, ‘I could come up with a $10 [million] or $15 million plan,’ and we could use some of that money toward taking that step forward and get a good community facility there, and at the same time preserve the school for a future site — not right there, but on the site — and do it right, at least it could be a path for direction.”
Weaver said he liked the idea as well, but that he wanted to refer to the town council for its feedback.
“In the meantime I'd like to have at least one or two winter events in this auditorium,” he said.
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He made a motion to allow the possibility, but the motion died when none of the other commissioners seconded it.