The historic but rundown vacant building at 45 E. Gordon St. in Bel Air, a former Harford County Public Schools headquarters and a former home of Bel Air High School, sold at public auction Thursday for $101,000.
The winning bid offered by John Zoulis, president of the Baltimore real estate investment firm Zoulis Properties Inc., was far below the property's appraised and assessed values.
"I like the county, and I like to take old buildings and retrofit them," Zoulis said.
Harford County owns the two-story brick building, which dates to the late 1800s and was once known as the Bel Air Academy.
The structure sits on a one-acre, commercially-zoned lot near downtown Bel Air, bordered by the Historical Society of Harford County and Bel Air Elementary School.
The property was sold "as is" in its current condition, and the buyer will be responsible for rehabilitating the building.
The buyer cannot demolish the structure "unless so ordered by a regulatory authority for public safety reasons, and with any other terms and conditions which are in the County's best interest," according to Resolution 12-14, which the County Council approved in 2014 declaring the building and lot surplus property.
That condition was expected to scare off some potential buyers, according to several people active in the Bel Air real estate market who questioned if the cost of rehabbing the building would justify any future income it might generate, regardless of its use.
Zoulis' purchase must be approved by the Harford County Board of Estimates, which is scheduled to take up the matter Feb. 10 and could reject it.
"The county would have to make a decision at that time, if the Board of Estimates rejected the sale, so we would just review our options," county government spokesperson Cindy Mumby said.
An appraisal done by the county in October 2013 valued the property at $620,000. Its assessed value for property tax purposes is $857,000.
About 34 people clustered in the building's first-floor hallway as auctioneer Aimee C. O'Neill, of O'Neill Enterprises in Forest Hill, stood on the wooden staircase and called for bids.
Among those attending were Bel Air Town Administrator Jesse Bane, Mayor Robert Reier, Economic Development Director Trish Heidenreich and County Councilman Jim McMahan, who represents the Bel Air area and attended elementary school in the building in the 1940s.
"Someone is going to have to be very creative with all the caveats attached," McMahan said, calling the property "a catch 22 all around," because of the rehab requirement, which he said might run $500,000 to $1 million, according to estimates he has heard.
"It's going to be interesting to see the next chapter from the 'lucky' bidder," he said.
O'Neill opened the bidding at $100,000, and then quickly dropped to $75,000 and then to $50,000 before the prospective buyers started offering bids in $1,000 increments.
The auction lasted for about 20 minutes, and the bidders, who had to post a $15,000 deposit to participate, eventually worked their way back up to the final offering of $101,000.
"We could just go to $100,000 and skip all this," O'Neill joked as she coaxed incrementally higher bids out of the crowd.
O'Neill said later that the lower initial bids were accepted to allow the "natural process of competitive bidding" to advance.
"To truly motivate buyers, it has been my experience – and it's historically been proven – that the buyers demand an opportunity to set that price and start the bidding," she explained.
If the Board of Estimates does not approve the purchase price, O'Neill explained, the agreement of sale will be nullified, and Zoulis' $15,000 deposit will be returned. The county must then determine what will be done with the property.
The building has been boarded up since 2006, when HCPS moved to its current headquarters on South Hickory Avenue.
The bidders and spectators had to wear light blue booties over their shoes to avoid taking lead and asbestos contamination out of the building, and each person had to sign a waiver before entering.
Paint was peeling off the walls of the hallway and surrounding former classrooms and offices. Signs related to school activities, including one stating the "vision" of HCPS, that "Harford County is a community of learners where educating everyone takes everyone," were scattered around the walls and floor.
O'Neill told the group that her parents attended Bel Air High School in the building. She said later that her father, John, who was also an auctioneer and the first president of the Harford County Council in 1972-74, graduated in 1935, and her mother Lois graduated in 1941.
She said she remembers when the structure was used for the HCPS headquarters and that "it's always interesting to be in a historic building."
"That's why I was particularly interested in having the opportunity to auction the property," she said.
Peter Wakefield, a Harford County procurement agent with the Division of Property Management, thanked Zoulis as O'Neill went through paperwork with the buyer.
"We're looking forward to seeing this [building] come back to life," Wakefield said.
Zoulis told Wakefield he plans to do "something unique, something to create a little buzz."
"That's why I'm here," he continued. "I like to take old buildings and give life back to them."
Zoulis said he has considered a few ideas for potential uses of the property, but nothing has been finalized.
"It has potential, and it's close to the main street, and it has a nice, bright future," he said.
Zoulis Properties Inc. develops or redevelops, and acquires and manages apartment complexes, single-family houses and commercial property in the Baltimore area and Florida, according to the company's website.
"The reason for our success is careful and strategic planning of each and every community," according to the website. "We ensure that our properties offer the ultimate in convenience, service and amenities. We make certain that our sites are within easy reach of employment hubs, transportation, shopping and entertainment."