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Harford's Craig leaving behind plenty of monuments

Harford County Executive David Craig, left, joins with fire and EMS officials during the dedication of the county's $50 million emergency operations center earlier this month, the last major public works project completed in Craig's nine and a half year administration.
Harford County Executive David Craig, left, joins with fire and EMS officials during the dedication of the county's $50 million emergency operations center earlier this month, the last major public works project completed in Craig's nine and a half year administration. (Courtesy of Robert Thomas, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

It's easy to say that every county executive has left a mark on Harford County, but the form it takes is bound to be different.

In David Craig's case, his nine and a half years as the head of Harford County government have been marked particularly by a flurry of construction projects that have touched every part of the county's 437 square miles.

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As Craig prepares to step down in two weeks to make way for a new administration, much of his legacy is going to include the array of freshly-completed school and government buildings, recreation facilities and public safety facilities, as well as additions and renovations to many others.

Some of that is to be expected. Craig is Harford's sixth county executive since the post was created under the county charter adopted in 1972, but he has served a year and a half longer than any of his predecessors. But, he also hasn't been bashful about following up on capital improvements for which taxpayers will continue to pay long after he leaves office.

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According to the audit for the county's 2014 fiscal year that ended June 20, Harford owes $615 million in principal and interest on bonds sold to build school and other public buildings and $176 million on money borrowed for water and sewer projects. When Craig took office, the county owned $201 million and $83 million, respectively.

Craig's administration spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new projects over the past few years, and county officials have especially focused on constructing school buildings to replace structures that parents and community leaders said were cramped and outdated for years.

Besides the wave of school construction, Craig also funded a major expansion for Abingdon's water treatment system, a new Sheriff's Office precinct building in a historically crime-plagued corner of the county and a larger library in Harford's northern end.

Although Craig's projects have benefited virtually every section of the county, such as the Veronica "Roni" Chenowith Activity Center for Fallston residents, he has clearly brought back a wave of new facilities for his hometown of Havre de Grace.

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That began with the Havre de Grace Activity Center, unveiled in 2007 as the first county-owned and operated building in the city.

Since then, Craig has steadfastly worked to push through a replacement building for Havre de Grace's aging high and middle schools, a project that has overcome opposition for school officials and county council members and won't reach the construction stage for at least another year.

Construction is underway, however, on a new, larger library in Havre de Grace and, earlier this month, Craig rammed through the county board of estimates a purchase of additional waterfront parkland in the city, where he twice served as mayor before becoming county executive.

"One main function of county government is infrastructure and making sure buildings are efficiently upgraded to be safe," Craig said in an e-mailed statement Thursday.

"Infrastructure is an important aspect of county government. It's important to upgrade buildings on a regular basis in order to continue to move forward," he said.

"County government must take care of infrastructure because the longer you wait, the worse the problem will become," he added.

'What a building'

The most prominent of Craig's construction legacy is likely to be the schools. He replaced three aging high school buildings and an elementary school that were built in the 1950s, finished two other high school projects started by his predecessor, Jim Harkins, and built a new elementary school. Ground was recently broken for the replacement of another elementary school building.

However, as countywide education funding concerns, such as teacher salaries, continue to pose major challenges, there has been some backlash.

Some of the incoming county elected officials, including Craig's successor, Barry Glassman, have promised to focus less on building and more on human capital, in the words of outgoing council president Billy Boniface, whom Glassman has named to his top cabinet post.

In 2007, the county opened Patterson Mill Middle-High School, establishing itself as the newest education facility in the Bel Air South community. Although the project was introduced by Harkins, Craig handled funding for the first new high school to open in the county since 1980. He also saw to the finish of the rebuilding of North Harford High School, also begun under Harkins.

In 2009, a replacement building was completed for Bel Air High School. A year later, replacement buildings were completed for Edgewood High School and its neighboring Deerfield Elementary. Those three schools cost more than $190 million.

Mark Wolkow, then-president of the county's Board of Education, spoke for many in the county when he observed about Deerfield Elementary: "What a building, huh?"

Bel Air got another lower school in the form of Red Pump Elementary School, which was finally built in 2011 after controversy over the location of such a facility in which Craig, who had supported school officials' desire to build the school elsewhere, bent to the wishes of the county council, especially then councilman Dick Slutzky, which had threatened to withhold funding.

Last month's groundbreaking for a new Youth's Benefit Elementary in Fallston will be the last school project started while Craig was county executive, pending what happens with the Havre de Grace project.

Along with the school building funding has come from the county to install artificial turf fields at every Harford high school, at an average cost of $1 million per field. Recreation facilities in Fallston, Hickory and Abingdon also have turf fields funded in part by the county.

Of the 10 high schools, seven have turf fields and the field at Joppatowne High is in the installation stage. That will leave two schools, Fallston and Patterson Mill, left on Craig's ambitious schedule, with Fallston's funded for construction next summer and Patterson Mill slated, though not funded for the year after, according to school officials.

Activity centers

One of the first big new projects during Craig's administration was the Havre de Grace Activity Center in his hometown.

The center was part of a wave of "intergenerational," multipurpose activity centers in the county, a concept that officials said drew plenty of skepticism in the beginning.

The $6 million-plus facility, opened in March 2007, had been discussed for 50 years and met with plenty of enthusiasm from local leaders and residents when the 35,000-square-foot building was finally unveiled.

The original celebration featured Gov. Martin O'Malley and the building, which still buzzes with activity, continues to draw rave reviews from Havre de Grace leaders.

The Veronica "Roni" Chenowith Activity Center was the next such project, offering Fallston residents a place to go since the fall of 2010.

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The 30,000-square-foot building represented not just a $7.3 million investment in the community but, Craig said at the time, "the heart that was Roni Chenowith."

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The building was notable for honoring Chenowith, a 15-year County Council member and highly-regarded public servant who passed away the previous year.

Craig and other officials in his administration have expressed particular pride in the construction of the Ma & Pa Trail extension from Tollgate Road in Bel Air to Edgeley Grove Park in Fallston, completed in 2008 along with Annie's Playground at the latter location.

Infrastructure, public safety

Expansion of the Abingdon Water Treatment Plant, the county's major water processing facility, doubled the plant's capacity to 20 million gallons a day and cost $70.4 million.

An investment in law enforcement facilities also came in the form of a $7.7 million, 42,000-square-foot southern precinct for the Sheriff's Office on Route 40 near Joppa.

Sheriff Jesse Bane called the station "long overdue" and said the department finally had "a facility that meets our demands."

Two weeks ago, the county dedicated a new $50 million Department of Emergency Services headquarters and 911 Center north of Bel Air, another project conceived and completed by Craig.

Not everything Craig wanted got done. He proposed an ambitious plan to build new office buildings for the county administration and sheriff's office in downtown Bel Air, but backed off when the economy went into recession.

But, as his administration fades into memory, the dedication plaques will serve as a reminder of who the county executive was when public buildings were completed. The name David R. Craig is on plenty of them.

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