Harford officials critical of center


Harford County's multimillion-dollar technology center -- built to forge links between business and higher education -- has come under fire from county officials and business leaders who say it is managed poorly and has failed to live up to its mission.

The $4 million Higher Education and Applied Technology Center was designed to capitalize on resources at nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground, offering upper-level degree programs and sites for businesses in Harford County.

But three years after it opened, the center is without computers in a planned lab and lacks a high-speed Internet link for classroom and business use, according to the center's Oversight Board and an analysis by the previous county administration.

Harford Community College, which oversees the center, is accused of spending lavishly on china, silverware, interior design and other items while failing to pursue private clients and academic programs aggressively.

College officials deny the charges, and the new county executive said he is working with the college leadership to deal with any problems.

Before leaving office, County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann urged her successor to take day-to-day management of the center away from Harford Community College.

"I believe that there should be an expression of interest for someone else to run the facility. Otherwise you are looking at close to a $4 million investment by the county and state that has not paid off for the citizens," said Rehrmann.

Charges rejected

But Harford Community College President Claudia Chiesi rejects those charges, saying that the complaints result from a misunderstandings and that the college is doing its job. "There is no validity to these complaints," Chiesi said.

New County Executive James M. Harkins said that he has no intention of wresting control of the 11,000-square-foot center from the community college.

"I refuse to dwell in the past," Harkins said. "I am meeting regularly with the college's president, and we are going to look and make sure all of the needed infrastructure is in place. We are looking to correcting any problems with an eye towards the future."

Conceived by former Aberdeen Mayor George Engelsson and others in 1987, the center was intended as a high-technology business center on state-owned land at Interstate 95 and Route 22.

The center, which includes an academic building and adjoining business park, is funded mainly by the county. It opened in August 1995. The community college was given the job of managing the center.

But in recent months, county officials say they have received complaints about the center's management.

In a letter to the college's lawyer in late October, then-county attorney Ernest A. Crofoot accused the college of failing to meet its obligations under the guidelines that established the center.

Crofoot said the college allowed decorating costs to take priority over equipping one computer lab and upgrading another while refusing donated wall hangings and decorative material.

The letter also accused the college of not reacting quickly enough to institutions and businesses interested in offering programs at the center, including Drexel University in Philadelphia, Cecil Community College and PARATEK, a private telecommunications company.

Such concerns were echoed in a report to the county's Office of Economic Development by the center's Oversight Board, which noted the center lacks a high-speed Internet link.

The report said that in late October, college officials removed money from the center's operating budget without consulting center officials, leaving the center in dire need of paper and other materials.

The report does not say what was done with the money. But it says that "non-technology purchases such as carpeting, wall coverings, landscaping, silverware, china, decorative flower arrangements, etc., are installed and presumably funded."

Chiesi said the removal of money noted in the report was a bookkeeping error that has been corrected, and denied that the center was short of materials. She said the computers for a new lab have been in storage since August awaiting installation during the winter break.

Though Chiesi would not discuss how much was spent on china and silverware, she said it was prudent for the college to buy durable settings for business luncheons. "It's a very high grade of china which had to be able to endure high-pressure cleaning," she said.

Some county officials say the center has failed to reach out to local businesses.

"I have been approached by several people in the business community, and they say that when they call to offer classes there, they are not received warmly," said County Councilwoman Susan B. Heselton of Joppatowne.

'Big disappointment'

Betsy Campion, a local businesswoman, said her community outreach group was forced to move an event to a nearby conference center after less-than-satisfactory dealings with the college.

"We used the HEAT Center on several occasions, but we didn't really feel welcomed," Campion said. "The way the center was promoted and how it has been are two different things, and that has been a big disappointment to many in the business community."

Steven Stowell, vice president of research and technology at a PARATEK, a tenant at the center's business park, said his company took its proposal for an engineering program to Cecil Community College after that school expressed more interest.

"Harford did send someone to talk to us about it, and they were polite, but the response from Cecil was red hot," Stowell said. "Harford was amiable, and we don't have any complaints about our dealings with them."

Chiesi said the college could not afford the estimated $45,000 to implement the PARATEK program, nor was there enough student interest.

Pub Date: 1/02/99

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