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UMES shelves plans to build presidential house

One year after demolishing its 38-year-old presidential residence, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore has decided it can't afford the larger house it was planning to build.

When UMES was seeking a president two years ago, college officials told candidates that UMES would raze the handsome but hardly lavish brick Colonial residence on the Princess Anne campus and build a more elaborate house nearby.

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Two years later, the original house has been torn down. But UMES officials have shelved plans to build a residence to replace it, saying they learned that the 5,000-square-foot house they want far exceeds their $600,000 construction budget.

Instead, college officials say, the new president, Thelma B. Thompson, will continue to lease a house in nearby Salisbury, paying for it with the $25,000 housing stipend given to all University System of Maryland presidents who lack an official residence.

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University officials are looking for an area home to buy and renovate for less than $600,000. If nothing is available, officials say, UMES may again consider building a home on campus.

In any case, the 3,200-student historically black university now finds itself without a president's house or definite plans for one on the eve of the formal Sept. 13 inauguration of Thompson, who came to the campus a year ago.

"We got the bids, they came in high, and now we're back in undecided mode about where to go at this point," said Gains B. Hawkins, UMES' vice president for institutional advancement.

The decision to cancel, or at least postpone, the construction of a new house draws renewed attention to UMES' earlier decision to demolish its 1964 presidential residence. The house sat on the edge of the sprawling campus just a few hundred yards from the administration building, flanked by two second-floor terraces and fronted by a long, graceful entrance walk.

Hawkins said the university decided in 2000, under former President Dolores Spikes, to use the space occupied by the house for a social sciences building that is under construction. With more than 600 acres in its possession, UMES has no shortage of land to build on, but officials decided the new academic building fit better on the site of the president's residence than anywhere else, Hawkins said.

Officials also reasoned that a larger residence set on a more private part of the campus would help UMES in attracting strong leadership, Hawkins said.

"My understanding is that as part of the wooing of the new president, [Thompson] was told we would be building a new house," Hawkins said. "As part of the interview process, that was one of the benefits that was offered to her."

Having to wait longer than expected for an official residence concerns Thompson, 63, a former vice president at Norfolk State University who earns $192,000 a year, Hawkins said. Thompson sees fund raising as one of her priorities, but it's hard to do that without a place to entertain potential donors on the bucolic UMES campus, he said.

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But officials are not second-guessing their decision to demolish their previous site for on-campus entertaining, Hawkins said. Nor are officials at the central university system office, which gave UMES the go-ahead to use $600,000 in campus funds to build the new house.

"That part of the campus is about teaching and learning," said system spokesman Chris Hart. "With all that foot traffic, and the need for students to move from one building to the next, it made perfect sense to see that space as more appropriately devoted to an academic building."

The decision not to build an overbudget house was motivated by the fiscal climate, which has led UMES to lay off nine employees, Hawkins said. It was also informed by the experience of Towson University, where former President Mark L. Perkins was forced to resign last year after Towson spent $1.8 million on his house.

"There was too much sensitivity about presidents' residences to just forge ahead," Hawkins said.

Joe Lawrence, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents nonfaculty staff at UMES, attributed the cancellation of the house plans to a protest Aug. 12 by several laid-off UMES workers at the proposed site. Hawkins denied this, saying the decision was made earlier.

Lawrence said the union would monitor the UMES administration to make sure it does not resurrect plans to build a new residence.

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"At UMES and across the state, it's clear their values and priorities are out of whack," he said. "They're laying off staff, tuition is skyrocketing, and they're debating when to begin building a presidential mansion."


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