Havre de Grace officials seek state support to save high school gym/auditorium

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The City of Havre de Grace is seeking financial support from the state to acquire the existing Havre de Grace High School auditorium/gymnasium building — slated for demolition as part of the Havre de Grace Middle/High School replacement project — for a regional performing arts and activity center.

“We see that as a real loss of a gem,” Patrick Sypolt, director of administration for the city, said of the potential demolition of the building, which is across Congress Avenue from the main high school building at Congress and Juniata Street.

City officials, along with Harford County and school system leaders, celebrated in April the start of construction on the long-desired replacement to the aging Havre de Grace High School and Havre de Grace Middle School.

The combined 250,111-square-foot middle and high school, which will have a capacity of more than 1,500 students, is being built off of Lewis Lane near the existing middle school. The total cost of the project, which is being funded by the county and the state, is $104.8 million, according to the HCPS capital budget for fiscal 2019.

The new school is expected to open for the 2020-2021 school year, and school system officials plan to raze the former middle and high school once the new building is occupied. The high school gym/auditorium will also be razed, although it could be spared if a viable alternate use is proposed, school officials said in the spring.

Sypolt, along with city Chief of Staff Steve Gamatoria, made a pitch for $500,000 in “seed money” over three years to state legislators during the Harford County delegation’s pre-Maryland General Assembly session meeting held Nov. 14 at the Bel Air Library.

The city would acquire the building with its 999-seat auditorium, and redevelop it as a performing arts venue and activity center for youth and senior citizen programs, complementing the city-owned Cultural Center at the Opera House downtown and the Havre de Grace Activity Center on Lewis Lane.

“We need a little seed money to where we can get going, where we can build that venue as truly a regional venue and we develop that audience,” Sypolt said.

Sypolt said the Opera House on Union Avenue, which includes a 200-seat theatre, has had more than 13,000 patrons in the past 15 months. The facility underwent a two-year $4 million renovation — the city contributed $2.1 million in a voter-approved bond — and opened to the public in August 2017.

The nonprofit Havre de Grace Arts Collective manages that venue.

“Though it’s [managed] very well, it’s hard to bring in larger acts and audiences that can generate any type of revenue which we can put back into the sustaining of such [a facility],” Sypolt said. “Our citizens are behind it, and we’re holding our own at this time.”

He said the Activity Center hosts “a plethora” of activities and events for youths and seniors, but it is “maxed out,” to where programs have been reduced or eliminated, or class sizes are kept low.

Sypolt said the former high school facility, which would be managed by an outside firm, could become sustainable in two to three years.

“Having the old high school auditorium put under our tenure to maintain and manage would ensure, based on our experience, that we can make this a sustainable facility,” he said.

Sypolt said Mayor William T. Martin and Harford County Executive Barry Glassman “both agree that the facility ought to be saved and continued on” for a purpose similar to its current use.

Del. Andrew Cassilly, a Republican who also serves as resource conservation manager for HCPS, said the school system has invested about $2 million on renovations to the auditorium building over the past five years.

“It’s kind of sad to rip down all that work,” he said.

Republican Del. Susan McComas asked about shifting seats in the auditorium to create a center aisle so patrons can exit in case of emergency. Sypolt said there are two aisles on either side of the auditorium that lead to the stage.

“That would be something we would certainly look at, as we would try to revitalize or enhance it bring it up to standards,” he said of McComas’ suggestion.

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