A Christmas miracle may have come early for those who live in Hampstead and Manchester when the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) voted unanimously on Dec. 3 to sell the former North Carroll High School (NCHS) to a private real estate development group, Chesapeake Real Estate Group, LLC, which intends to develop the building and grounds into a commercial multi-purpose sports complex.
Following the local Board of Education’s decision to close NCHS’s doors after the 2015-2016 school year, the BOCC became the landlord of the nearly 280,000 square-foot facility and surrounding campus. Over the years, there were various plans for the building including: making it the home of Carroll County Public Schools’ central office; becoming the Sheriff Office’s northern precinct; and installing a turf playing field. However, none of these ideas ever came to fruition. As of today, Sheriff Jim DeWees runs a Police Training Academy on the bottom level and the North Carroll Recreation Council is allowed to use both gymnasiums and the surrounding fields. Unfortunately, most of the building and campus has been unused, leaving many folks in the community worried that the school would remain abandoned forever.
After the county government spent four years trying to either figure out a purpose for the property or sell it, Chesapeake has agreed to purchase the parcel for $1 million. At the Dec. 3 BOCC meeting, Chesapeake’s executive vice president and partner Matthew Laraway spoke with the commissioners about the company’s vision for North Carroll. I was recently able to speak with Laraway, who resides in Hampstead, and learn more about Chesapeake’s plans.
For the development’s first phase, Chesapeake estimates that it will cost approximately $4 million to design and construct four multi-purpose fields, the bare minimum number of fields needed to attract weekend sports tournaments. Of those fields, one field, if not two fields, will be turf, and the remaining fields will have “first class” grass surfaces. If the sale stays on schedule, then the first fields could be operable as early as spring 2022.
As Laraway stated during the BOCC meeting, Chesapeake is purchasing NCHS as a “community give back” for the company. As part of the contract terms, Carroll County recreation leagues and high school sports programs will be allowed to use the facilities and Chesapeake intends to give them first priority during the weekdays. Although Chesapeake will own NCHS, they will be bringing in a professional third-party sports management group to manage the day-to-day operations and programming.
Chesapeake’s long-term goal is to use as much of the property as possible. Laraway explained that they would like to eventually have the building full of tenants. One part of the building that has been closed off to the public for years is the school’s large auditorium which Chesapeake would like to rent out on a part-time or full-time basis. In addition, as part of the deal, the Sheriff’s Police Training Academy will continue to occupy a little less than 5,000 square feet and not be charged any rent for the next 10 years.
Laraway made it clear that Chesapeake wants to bring local amenities on-site to the new sports complex. For example, if the complex needs lunch provided to hundreds of kids and parents for a weekend tournament, Chesapeake will not bring in a chain restaurant to provide the food, but instead employ a local main street eatery. Chesapeake wants to “provide as much opportunity as we can” to local businesses, Laraway said.
When Laraway moved to Hampstead four years ago and saw all of the “Save North Carroll” signs, he quickly realized how much NCHS meant to the community. As a way for Chesapeake to honor the legacy of the former high school, it intends to name the venue the Panther Sports Complex or Panther Athletic Club.
Many of us fought hard to keep NCHS open as a school, but we did not prevail. As the years have gone by, two boards of education and superintendents have said that there is no need for an additional high school for the foreseeable future. My only hope was that the county would find a purpose for the building and campus so that a large empty edifice would not sit in the heart of Hampstead forever. My worst fear was that my alma mater would be demolished and only live on in memory.
Chesapeake’s proposal is the best and most realistic proposal to come along over the last four years. I look forward to the day when the sale is complete and Chesapeake breathes new life into North Carroll. Although Christmas is still four days away, the sale of NCHS might be the best Christmas gift the North Carroll community receives this holiday season. Merry Christmas!