HCC to close Belmont Conference Center

Belmont, the 18th-century Elkridge estate on 68 acres operated as a conference center and education lab by Howard Community College, will close at year's end, costing six people their jobs, college officials announced Thursday.

The secluded, pale yellow house surrounded by Patapsco State Park was built in 1738 as a wedding gift for the son of Caleb Dorsey. It has been a source of controversy since 2004, when the community college foundation bought it for $5.2 million. The property, along with an adjacent 13 acres and a house, have been up for sale since August 2009, but with no buyer in sight, college officials said business at Belmont has declined so much that they must close it.

"When you look ahead at the bookings we had, there wasn't much," said college President Kate Hetherington. There are no private events booked for January or February, and only one for March and two in April, she said. "You can't subsist on that."

Belmont is still looking for bookings for the rest of this year, however. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, Belmont lost $275,749, according to college officials.

Next year's bookings will be canceled, and the college will help the brides anticipating weddings at Belmont to find other places. Two college maintenance workers will care for the property until a buyer is found, Hetherington said.

The college also uses the center to help train 67 culinary arts students in food preparation, a portion of the 207 students in the hospitality curriculum. Food courses will return to the main campus in Columbia, Hetherington said.

"Today's recession has given businesses and organizations in our nation reason to stop in our tracks and reassess priorities," said Kathy Rensin, college board chairwoman. With enrollment increasing at a time of state and county fiscal belt-tightening, college officials felt they had to protect their main function.

For years, a group of local residents who live near the estate have fought the college's purchase and operation of the property. They opposed suggestions for widening the poorly paved single-lane entry road, proposals for development on the property and what they considered threats to the estate's historic ambience.

"It's a sad day," said Cathy Hudson, an Elkridge resident who helped form the Save Belmont Coalition to protect the property's historic status. "It has potential for being a successful business, but they didn't have the vision for it," she said about college officials.

County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who represents the area and opposed public ownership and operation of the facility since taking office in 2006, approved of the move.

"I think it's a good decision to focus their effort on the main campus," she said.

Maryland Historical Trust easements protect part of the property and the main house, which sits on a hill facing a double row of mature trees along the driveway in a scene that, without motorized vehicles, might be imaged from centuries ago. The estate was a private residence until 1966, when the Smithsonian Institution bought it for a retreat center, then sold it to the American Chemical Society in the mid-1980s.


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