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Flier building up on blocks as county ponders next move [Commentary]

I recently sold my 2001 Honda Civic. It had been around the block and then some, and needed a $2,500 transmission job. The vehicle itself was worth only a fraction of that figure.

I did what most people would do in that situation and sold it. No sense throwing good money after bad, right? Chances are, it would need other major work not too far down the road.

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I stood upon the point of diminishing returns.

County Executive Allan Kittleman underwent a similar thought process with regard to one of my old haunts, the Flier building on Little Patuxent Parkway.

Under Kittleman's predecessor, Ken Ulman, the county Economic Development Authority bought the 1978 landmark for $2.8 million just last summer, intending to relocate its Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship there.

Trouble is, after Kittleman took office this winter, his transition team told him that the renovations needed to convert the building to a small-business incubator, as intended, would cost $7.5 million.

"I do not believe that spending three times the purchase price on renovations is fiscally prudent," Kittleman wrote in a letter to County Council chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty.

Kittleman also proposes that the county sell off properties in Jessup, North Laurel and Ellicott City. He wants to use the proceeds to buy land for a new high school in the county's southeast.

In the case of the Flier building, at least, Kittleman's logic appears sound. Sinking that kind of scratch into renovations wouldn't make sense, would it? Like my decision to part company with my old Honda, this one, at first glance, would seem to be a no-brainer.

My Honda, though, wasn't sitting on blocks in my front yard. For all intents and purposes, that's what the Flier building has been doing for four years now.

The building has been a big, empty hole in the landscape of Columbia's quasi-urban core since 2011, when the Baltimore Sun Media Group moved its operations to the parent paper's headquarters on Calvert Street in Baltimore.

To have any building, especially one as architecturally distinctive as the Flier building, sitting vacant for such an extended period hurts the neighborhood as a whole, but it also does the value of that particular property no good. In his letter to the council, Kittleman wrote that a "conservative estimate" would put the value of the four properties he's looking to unload at $4 million. The county spent $5.8 million to buy them.

However skeptical one is about the wisdom of the original purchase, selling this property at a loss just six months later has to give one pause. The proceeds from the sale of the Flier building and the other properties would certainly take a bite out of the cost of acquiring land for the high school, but covering that buy is another matter.

If one accepts the premise that making the Flier building useful again would indeed cost $7.5 million, of course, the math still works out in favor of dumping it. But maybe if the Economic Development Authority were to scale down its plans for a community focal point — the wish list at one point included a cafe — and made it a more spartan setting, the county could salvage the project.

If that proves infeasible, county officials could consider other ways to make the old girl useful again. One idea I heard recently involved putting the newly merged Columbia Art Center and Howard County Arts Council there. Aesthetically, it seems to make more sense than Long Reach's Stonehouse, and it would provide a more central location for visitors from around the county. And given the about-face Kittleman recently executed with regard to Ulman's plans for the reinvention of the village center, he's certainly not averse to outside-the-box thinking there.

County officials also bear the burden of having to keep in mind the best interests of the neighborhood when they sell land. Yes, zoning restrictions offer some protection, but if a potential buyer has a shady track record, or if his plans might leave the property vacant for another four years, our public servants can't just take the money and run the way private owners of such properties can.

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In the final analysis, county officials may well still conclude that a sale of the Flier building and the other parcels is in the best interest of the neighborhoods and taxpayers alike. But before the County Council signs off on these transactions, I hope its members will ask some of these questions.

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