Havre de Grace hosts state leaders for opportunity zone summit, visit to tourist sites

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Maryland Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz had to cut her last trip through Harford County short, as a severe rain storm meant she could not visit Havre de Grace, but she was able to complete that leg of the trip recently following the state’s Opportunity Zone Leadership Task Force regional summit for Carroll, Cecil and Harford counties in the city.

Schulz is a member of the 15-person task force, which is chaired by Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, and spent the afternoon of June 5 discussing and fielding input from community leaders on the opportunity zones, which are designated across the country by the U.S. Treasury Department to direct resources to communities in need of investment for economic development or redevelopment.

There are 149 designated opportunity zones in Maryland, created through the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. There are four opportunity zones in Harford County, including one in Edgewood, another in Aberdeen and two in Havre de Grace, according to a Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development web page on the program. The zones are in effect for 10 years.

Schulz said Maryland has created additional state incentives, on top of federal incentives, for opportunity zones.

“If there is new development or redevelopment in those areas — and in the case of the Department of Commerce [it] includes additional job creation — we can utilize some of our credits and incentives along with that [federal investment] at a maximum rate, if it’s in an opportunity zone,” the commerce secretary said following the task force summit.

The task force met in the second-floor theater of the Cultural Center at the Opera House in downtown Havre de Grace and heard from elected and appointed officials and civic leaders from the region.

Schulz took a tour of several sites along the Havre de Grace waterfront after the summit, including Concord Point Park, a section of the Promenade boardwalk and the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum. The secretary and several members of her staff were with Patrick Sypolt, the city’s Director of Administration; Stephanie Noye, MS4 permit coordinator with the public works department; Leonard Parrish, Harford County’s director of community and economic development; and County Council President Pat Vincenti.

Vincenti also owns Vincenti Decoys in Havre de Grace and is a past president of the Decoy Museum board of directors. He stepped down as board president in February and has been succeeded by Mike Tarquini.

Vincenti and Parrish talked with Schulz about the 6 percent hotel occupancy tax enacted in Harford County in early 2015 — following its adoption by the Maryland General Assembly the year before — and how the revenue it has generated have helped nonprofit organizations that support tourism, such as the Decoy Museum board.

Parrish said tourism has a $375 million annual economic impact in Harford County, or more than $1 million a day, with sport tourism such as baseball and lacrosse tournaments being a significant driver.

“With the hotel tax being passed in ‘15, that was a tremendous leap forward for tourism as a whole,” Vincenti said.

Noye showed Schulz a two-phase stormwater remediation project around the Promendade-Decoy Museum-and-Havre de Grace Maritime Museum-area, which the city completed in 2018. The project was supported with funding from the city, the state’s Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund, as well as through Harford County, according to Noye.

The stormwater remediation measures, which are meant to reduce the amount of runoff pollution coming into the Chesapeake Bay, include step pools, a dry steam channel, removal of invasive plants and putting in plants native to the area, according to Noye.

“It’s quite lovely, actually, and it works,” Noye told Schulz, indicating the plants, waterfowl and insects that make the stormwater areas their habitat.

“It is lovely,” Schulz replied.

The secretary also saw a sandy spit between the Promenade and the waters of the bay, which Sypolt noted gets visitors on a regular basis.

“You should see this place on the weekend,” Sypolt said. “You would think it is a beach.”

Schulz praised city officials for their success in creating a “destination spot” along the Promenade, as well as redeveloping parts of the city as tourism destinations — Vincenti showed the secretary a photo in the lobby of the Decoy Museum of the museum building as a run-down heating plant and indoor pool for the nearby landmark Bayou Hotel, before the building was developed for the museum, which opened in 1986.

“I love the idea that when they talked about the redevelopment that they went to the residents and asked them what they wanted to do,” Schultz said in an interview after her tour. “That’s always very impressive when you go back and ask your constituents how they feel about it.”

Schulz also praised the city’s shoreline restoration and stormwater remediation efforts.

“Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay has been a priority for the governor,” the secretary said. “It’s a priority for all of us to be able to make sure that our shorelines are healthy for the communities that are able to benefit from them.”

Havre de Grace opportunities

The opportunity zone task force, led by the lieutenant governor, reviewed a number of topics during its meeting June 5, including job growth, the need for expanding vocational and technical education and how to redevelop the site in downtown Havre de Grace currently occupied by University of Maryland Harford Memorial Hospital.

Rutherford, who visited Harford Technical High School in Bel Air last year, stressed how people trained in the trades can make a good living, noting how people will “pay whatever they need to pay to get their air conditioning fixed on the hottest day of the year.”

“It’s really about what the local community wants and how we can help them leverage opportunity zones to get what they want in the space,” Hannah Marr, a spokesperson for Rutherford, said of the regional summit. Such summits have been happening in different parts of the state this year, and the next one is scheduled for Western Maryland in July.

“We are very fortunate at this juncture to have them because it does assist us in making business investment in Havre de Grace attractive to outsiders,” Sypolt, the city director of administration, said of opportunity zones.

Harford Memorial Hospital, which is owned by University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, has been an anchor at South Union Avenue and Revolution Street since it opened more than a century ago. Upper Chesapeake Health is seeking approval from the state to close Harford Memorial and open a free-standing medical center, with a full-service emergency department, and psychiatric hospital in Aberdeen plus expand Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air.

The Vision 2020 project was announced in early 2016. The plan initially called for building the free-standing medical center on property UCH owns near the Bulle Rock community in Havre de Grace, but health system officials shifted to the Merritt Properties office building along Route 22 in Aberdeen in 2018, following months of pushback from residents and city officials in Havre de Grace concerned about the potential loss of medical services in their community.

Sypolt, Mayor William T. Martin and other Havre de Grace officials representing departments such as planning and public works, met with Rutherford and his staff ahead of the regional summit June 5 to discuss redevelopment of the hospital site.

“Our first wish would be to maintain or keep, at the very least, a micro-hospital there on the site,” Sypolt said in an interview June 6.

If that cannot happen, city officials would like to see another use such as a higher education or research facility, or a corporate campus, Sypolt said.

Rutherford did not commit to a specific course of action, and city leaders didn’t expect that, but the lieutenant governor “was very sincere and genuinely listened to what we were saying,” according to Sypolt.

He said city officials do expect to hear back from Rutherford’s office at some point, to possibly provide assistance with bringing in new users to the hospital site — UCH is also working with the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield to market and find a developer for the site before Harford Memorial is vacated, according to a health system website on the project.

“The Hogan Administration has always been very good listeners and fairly quick to respond in addressing our concerns,” Sypolt said.

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