County purchase of Towson Y property on hold due to economy

The economy has thrown a major curve at the Y of Central Maryland's plan to build a new $12 million, 48,000-square-foot facility to replace its antiquated quarters at 600 W. Chesapeake Ave., in Towson.

The Y had planned to sell its 17-acre property to Baltimore County and lease back 7 acres for the new construction, which it would fund, in part, with the money from the land sale.

But the county, which intended to use the property for ball fields, has put the purchase on hold because of the economy.

It may be a strike, but the game is still on, according to John Holman, the Towson Y's community liaison.

"We're still confident we have the support and enthusiasm to go forward," Holman said. "We hope to have shovels in the ground by the end of the year."

To buy the property, the county was counting on using $3 million in Program Open Space funds and be reimbursed by the state, according to Don Mohler, chief of staff for the administration of County ExecutiveKevin Kamenetz.

But because of economic challenges the state is facing, the state changed the reimbursement from cash to bonds, he said.

"Bonds carry no guarantee. For the county to proceed, we would have had to forward fund the project, and we are not in a position to do that," Mohler said. "We can't put up the money in hopes of being reimbursed."

The issue is not the project, it's the economy, he said. When the economy improves and the county is assured of cash reimbursement, the county could proceed.

He can't predict when that will happen, Mohler said.

"I wish I had that crystal ball. I'd be on Wall Street."

Meanwhile, the Y is making plans to proceed on its own to produce "a bright, shiny new facility," Holman said.

During construction, the Towson Y will remain in operation in its existing buildings. For the most part, those buildings will be razed when the 45,000-square-foot facility is ready.

The new facility will be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified — a designation that pertains to the inclusion of environmentally friendly construction and design features — and will fit into the west Towson residential setting from an architectural standpoint, according to Y of Central Maryland CEO John Hoey.

The Y will manage the building and, under the sale and lease-back agreement — the county Department of Recreation and Parks will manage the grounds.

The emphasis will be on creating "community space," Hoey said.

"We want it to be open and inviting, a true community hub for Towson for families, kids and seniors," he said.

Holman is optimistic about beginning construction by the end of the year, even though he acknowledges that at one time, he was optimistic about completing construction by then.

Neighborhood groups and recreation officials were worried about the potential loss of green space in 2008 when the Y was exploring the sale of the property to raise money to build the new facility on the site or elsewhere.

The Y had received bids of $5 million to $10 million, and county zoning regulations would have allowed a developer to put 59 condos or apartments on the property.

"Like many worthwhile projects, it has a long gestation project," Holman said. "We got a little bit sidelined by the economy, but we still have high hopes."

The Y is counting on bank financing and philanthropy, he said. "We have talked with people capable of helping us, and we hope they will. It's a wonderful project."

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