The City of Havre de Grace is close to gaining ownership of the auditorium and gymnasium of the old high school, located on Congress Avenue, and is expected to start seeking feedback from community stakeholders regarding plans for the building.
At its July meeting, the Harford County Board of Education voted to surplus the 3.3 acres and the building to the county. The county in turn plans to surplus the facilities to the city, as agreed to two years ago. Cindy Mumby, a spokesperson for Harford County Government, said the transaction should be completed sometime this week.
The facilities were no longer needed by Harford County schools after a new $80 combined Havre de Grace Middle/High School opened on Lewis Lane last fall.
City officials had asked to take ownership of the auditorium and gymnasium rather than having them demolished, in 2019. At the time, Mayor William T. Martin said the auditorium, one of the largest in Harford County, would complement the city’s arts and entertainment district, and that parks and recreation could always use more space.
Patrick Sypolt, the director of capital projects for the City of Havre de Grace, said the project will be one of the best and “most fun” the city has undertaken to date.
“I think it’s going to be a great benefit to the city ... people are starving for this type of thing, things to do,” he said. “You measure quality of civilization by the culture they bring into their lives. This facility ... by its sheer size, we can really start attracting groups that command a larger audience.”
He anticipated more than 800 seats in the theater when all is said and done, and said the main gymnasium and auxiliary gym could attract adult athletic leagues that are looking for evening facilities and be used as part of larger sports tournaments going on in the county and the region that need additional space.
A feasibility study is under way for the property to ensure its economic viability. Sypolt anticipated the study being completed and ready for presentation to the mayor and city council sometime in the fall.
“At that juncture, the study will include what we feel we can do with it, what it would cost and how we could maintain it going forward,” Sypolt said. “We’re not looking to make a profit, but it has to be able to support itself. That’s our objective.”
Public work sessions about the facilities will also be taking place in the near future, Sypolt said, within the next month or so. Those sessions would be structured, to keep them on track.
“The possibilities are about a numerous as the stars in the sky, and you have to give it some framework,” he said.
The city will also have to decide whether it wants to hire a third party to manage, including booking entertainment acts and scheduling tournaments for the athletic facilities. Sypolt has been moving forward with that as the plan, and the administration has been supportive, he said.
“Given the size of the facility, and the expertise the city does not have, I think third-party management would be appropriate, and there are agencies out there that do that,” he said. “So they would be like a subcontractor for us, managing that facility.”
Architectural firm Manns Woodward has been hired to assess the condition of the building and determine what it will take to get it compliant with current standards. Sypolt said he doesn’t anticipate it being much, since it had been being actively used by the school system until recently. Once the needed upgrades are identified, the city will have to determine whether to do them all at once or to phase them in.
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“I want to do it right, but I want to get some benefit from the facility sooner rather than later,” he said. “I think most of the community would as well.”