Hampstead officials are awaiting a decision this week on state tax credits that could kick-start the transformation of the old Hampstead Elementary School into a senior housing center, a project seen as key to the town's revitalization efforts.
A development team selected by the town needs state housing officials to approve millions of dollars in historical preservation tax credits for the project to proceed. The Carroll County commissioners have agreed to sell the school and its 5-acre site on Route 30 to the town if the tax credits come through, but negotiations over the sale have been tense.
The town has pursued the building, maintained by the school board and owned by the county, since the mid-1990s. The school deteriorated in the 10 years since it was last used, Hampstead officials say.
Town Manager Ken Decker said the former school is a natural starting point for the town's revitalization efforts.
"Anybody in Hampstead over the age of 30 has some personal connection to that building," he said. "If you asked most people to pick the center of town, the old school would probably be the choice. And it's fallen into pretty serious disrepair."
Under the proposal, Baltimore developer Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse would join with the nonprofit Interfaith Housing of Western Maryland to create about 90 apartments for senior citizens with incomes of no more than $28,000.
The town would donate the building to Struever, which would refurbish the 91-year-old, U-shaped brick building that faces Main Street, demolish the addition in the back and build a new addition. Struever has estimated that the project will cost about $10 million, almost all financed through state tax credits and grants.
All three county commissioners signed a letter last September saying they would sell the property to Hampstead, assuming Struever could obtain financing within a year. The deadline was set for Tuesday and financing remains incomplete, but the commissioners voted last week to extend the deadline 30 days.
In the meantime, county and town officials have been negotiating a sales contract for the property. Town officials first thought the commissioners would give them the property, but the price has since risen to $100,000. Hampstead officials reluctantly agreed to the increase but haven't signed the contract because it includes a clause that would give the property back to the county should the Struever deal fall through.
'Given them our word'
"We've given them our word that we intend to turn the old school into senior housing, and where I'm from, if someone tries to make you promise again, it means they're not dealing in good faith," Decker said. "You can't sort of sell a property. You either sell it or you don't."
But the commissioners have said they don't want the property in Hampstead leaders' hands with no definite deal in place.
"We could really be criticized for giving it to them if they end up not doing anything with it," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell.
Meanwhile, a town business owner continues his quest to scuttle the deal by lobbying the commissioners. Roy Harmon owns an antiques store on Main Street and has, in the past year, been an outspoken critic of the Hampstead government in general and the old school project in particular.
Harmon says Hampstead officials, led by Mayor Christopher M. Nevin, approved the Struever deal without assessing the value of the old school property. Town leaders have said the dilapidated building and surrounding fields have little market value, but Harmon calls this argument ludicrous.
"Are you going to tell me you wouldn't pay more than the $100,000 they're paying for 5 acres along a heavily traveled commercial stretch of Route 30?" he said. "I don't think so."
Harmon says that he has nothing against senior housing but that he believes the developers will be the only ones to profit from the current plan. If the commissioners approve the sale, he said, they will only continue the cycle of negligence the school board began by allowing the building to fall into disrepair. He has implored them to start over and solicit development ideas for the property from others in Hampstead.
'Best public purpose'
Town officials counter that the value of the land is largely irrelevant. "When you talk about the best public purpose for a piece of land, you can't reduce the argument to dollar values," Decker said. "The council has decided the preservation of the building is in and of itself an important public purpose."
The town's revitalization plans also include a new municipal park, sidewalks connecting all of Hampstead to downtown, new bicycle paths and underground electrical power lines. But the school building would be the centerpiece.
Town officials showed the building to commercial developers, who responded with little interest, Decker said, adding that the redevelopment was subject to an open-bid process that drew only two viable proposals, both for senior housing. The commissioners have granted Harmon several audiences but have not acted on his wishes, apparently remaining behind the Struever plan.
"They've acted as if they still support the plan," Decker said. "I think we're all just waiting now to see what will happen with the tax credits."