Sure, the place looked a bit run down, but most of its prospective managers thought it had possibilities.
The kitchen was large; there appeared to be enough bedrooms for everyone; the fences were sturdy; and there was plenty of land, with a large lawn, rolling hills and beautiful trees.
The owners said they were willing to install an expensive new heating system, and said the county was about to hook the place up to new water lines.
With a little paint and a lot of innovative ideas, the place might even be able to do what it was built to do.
But this was not a house that executives from about two dozen private firms from across the country toured last week. Quite the contrary. This was the 215-acre Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Cub Hill-- Maryland's only home for juvenile delinquents.
And this was a time of change.
The state of Maryland is trying to get a private company to take over operations at Hickey, to do everything from maintaining buildings that, in some cases, are nearly as old as this century, to counseling the 360 troubled teen-agers incarcerated there about drug or alcohol abuse, AIDS or pregnancy prevention, or to teach them some skill or trade they can use as an alternative to crime when they get back on the outside.
The hope is that a private company might be able to do what the state has not: develop a program that does more for kids than lock them up and that costs less than the $17 million a year Maryland currently spends on Hickey. Sixty-eight percent of the Hickey residents had as many as five prior recorded brushes with the law.
Based on the large turnout at a two-day "pre-bid conference" held at the school last week, and based on interviews with several of the potential bidders, it appears a number of companies are likely to go after the five-year contract, which could be worth as much as $80 million to the winning bidder.
"We were pleased with the number of potential vendors. Among them, we know at least five or six have very substantial experience in the [juvenile corrections] area," said Juvenile Services Secretary Nancy S. Grasmick. "There is a genuine feeling we are going to have some healthy competition here, which is what we desire."
The would-be operators of Hickey gathered on the wooden pews of the yellow-walled chapel attached to Hickey's main administration building, one of a dozen or more old stucco buildings that date back to around World War I. Deputy Secretary Alfred I. Murphy, using maps of what he called "the campus," described the age and current use of each building, its staffing, utility costs, maintenance problems from inefficient boilers to the presence of asbestos, and status of state capital improvement plans.
He talked about Hickey's "kids."
The youngsters at Hickey range in age from 12 to 20, but most are between 13 and 18, he said. A third of them are awaiting trial. The other two-thirds are "committed" there for crimes that range from assault with intent to murder, to unlawful use of a handgun in a crime, to breaking and entering, vandalism, shoplifting, drug dealing, traffic offenses, trespassing and running away from home. They end up staying at Hickey an average of seven months.
Many suffer from alcohol or drug problems. Some are so violent they are confined to one of three small dormitories that, along with a classroom building and a gymnasium, are encircled by a double row of 16-foot-high chain-link fencing topped with rolls of razor ribbon. At night, those youngsters sleep on bunks in closet-like cells about five cinder blocks wide and eight cinder blocks deep.
On the first day of the conference, several potential bidders said they were concerned the state was moving too fast, that problems at Hickey, or hidden costs, were being glossed over. A two-day limit on tours of the facility only heightened a concern that bidders would have to bid blindly to meet the state's June 17 deadline, several said.
But by week's end, most bidders were praising Mr. Murphy and other Juvenile Services officials for their willingness to answer questions or make documents or records available. Tours of the facility were extended through the end of May, and a proposed permissible profit margin of 3 percent of the overall operating costs was raised to 5 percent in an effort to attract more bids.
"The first day I was leery, but now I am not," said Ron Russell, group vice president of the Management & Training Corp. of Ogden, Utah. The company has contracts with the federal government to house and train some 10,000 youth at 20 Job Corps centers around the country. The firm also runs a 200-bed minimum-security prison in Desert Center, Calif.
What many of the bidders said they liked most about the Maryland proposal was that it was so open-ended.
When asked by one bidder to be more specific about what Maryland has in mind, Mr. Murphy replied: "We're expecting innovation. It's an opportunity to live dreams. If you have something you'd like to do in corrections and were never given the opportunity, we'll give you the opportunity."
Hal Farrier, a consultant on the Hickey project for National Corrections Management Inc., a Boynton Beach, Fla., firm that runs some inmate release programs for the state of Florida, said he was glad he did not know what kind of programs Maryland officials are looking for at Hickey.
"That leaves the door open for contractors to utilize their own imagination and start from scratch," he said, adding that bidders otherwise might simply try "to parrot the existing philosophy" just to win the contract. "Obviously, in my opinion, the existing philosophy isn't working. And it's hard to be innovative if you've been given a restrictive philosophy or boundaries."
The companies that showed interest in Hickey came from at least eight states and the District of Columbia. Among them were firms that already run juvenile or adult corrections facilities in other states; run job training programs; provide psychological or substance abuse counseling for youngsters; or which simply advocate alternatives to incarceration for juvenile delinquents.
"We don't want to be involved in anything if we just have to warehouse kids or adults," said Mr. Russell of the Utah-based Management and Training Corp. "We want to try new and innovative programs within a system, or we won't bid it."
Most agreed the physical plant at Hickey was in disrepair, but several said it was not in as bad shape as they had expected, and was not nearly as bad as some similar institutions they had seen elsewhere.
"My first impression driving up was that it has potentially gorgeous grounds," said Mr. Farrier of National Corrections Management. "The setting is absolutely one of the most attractive I've seen."
But one potential bidder, who asked not to be identified, said that after seeing the facility and learning the staff-to-student ratio was one-to-one, he could not understand why Maryland has had so much trouble there. He and others noted, however, that it was obvious from the tour some classrooms for welding, carpentry and other trades were shut. State officials said those programs were victims of staff departures and a state-imposed hiring freeze.
Bidders differed on whether they could run the program for less than the state spends, although several said they could run it better for the same amount of money.
Most also said they had not yet figured out how big a staff they would need to run the place, or how many of the existing state employees there they might hire. Those workers are scheduled to lose their jobs on Sept. 1, the day the state hopes to turn over the keys to a private operator.
Jane O'Shaughnessy, chief executive officer of Rebound!, a Denver firm that runs a 140-bed secure treatment center for males 90-miles northeast of Denver, said her company was attracted to the Hickey proposal because of the opportunity it presented.
"One of the things they're looking for is: Who has the best ideas? I think they're looking for not only people who can just open doors and close them, and cook meals and drive vans, but looking for some people with some ideas."