Howard Community College officials are seeking millions of dollars to expand the school's hospitality and culinary programs, but it is apparent that many believe the money would be better spent by taking a few courses in public relations.
If nothing else, college officials have permitted concerns to mushroom into full-scale controversy and distrust that they may find difficult to subdue.
The college was branded as "evasive," "arrogant," "secretive" and "dishonest" during testimony before the Planning Board last week on its request for $3 million in public funds to help finance its ambitious expansion plans in Elkridge.
Two-thirds of the money would be used to acquire two adjoining properties totaling 82 acres, including the 68-acre, 268-year-old Belmont mansion and conference center.
The rest of the money would be used for renovations to the carriage house on the secluded property, said Lynn C. Coleman, vice president of administration and finance.
The estate is surrounded by 10,000 acres of Patapsco Valley State Park forest. The property was acquired in 2004 by the Howard Community College Educational Foundation, a private entity that operates outside the college.
"It was the intent from the beginning that the college would acquire the estate from the foundation," Randy Bengfort, the college's director of public relations and marketing, said in an interview.
The $3 million the college is seeking from the county would not cover the full price for the property, and it will request additional funding in the future, he said.
The college plans to spend $1 million renovating the carriage house, which would include a modern, professional kitchen to serve its culinary students and guests at the conference center.
Expansion of the hospitality and culinary programs is necessary to meet an acute need in those industries, said Sharon Schmickley, chairwoman of the Business and Computer Systems Division.
Those industries will require 12.5 million employees this year. They suffer from high turnover, she said, because employees are often poorly trained.
The college's hospitality-culinary programs are growing rapidly and are projected to almost double to 200 students in five years.
"Without Belmont," Schmickley said, "we have no facility to offer this program."
The college also hopes over time to renovate a barn into dining and meeting space and obtain private funding for a 40-room inn.
Residents do not appear critical of the hospitality-culinary programs but to the plans to develop the estate and to what they view as the college's refusal to divulge full details of those plans.
"What is it [money] really for?" asked Cathy Hudson. "We don't know. ... No business plan has been made public."
Meg Schumacher characterized the planned expansion of programs as "a great idea for the college; it's the wrong place for it."
Bob Seipel accused college leaders for being "so evasive and often arrogant."
He said the immediate plans would be "simply an entry for much larger development."
The college, Seipel said, "has lost our trust."
While acknowledging the college "probably made some mistakes" in its handling of the issue, another member of the public, David Terry, defended the request for funding.
He said the foundation stepped in and "acquired [the property] in a rush" to assist the college.
Bengfort confirmed that notion. "The sale opportunity was out of the budget cycle," he said, and the college needed the foundation's immediate help to prevent the property from being acquired by someone else.
The Planning Board will decide Wednesday what capital budget requests it will endorse or reject. The board's actions, though, are advisory to the County Council.