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Commissioners may vote on ag center today

June 09, 1998|By STEVEN T. DENNIS

The Washington County Commissioners could decide today whether to build a $2.7 million farm museum and office complex north of Sharpsburg, although no paying tenants have signed on yet.

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The county has no guarantee that the handful of agricultural agencies it hopes to lure to the proposed Washington County Rural Heritage Museum and office complex will move from their current offices at 1260 Maryland Ave.

Even if tenants do move into the complex, the project will cost the county $100,000 a year.

The county, under an agreement with the state, pays rent at the Maryland Avenue complex for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. The rent is $100,000 less than the operational and debt costs of the new facility would be.

Colleen Cashell, executive director of the local office of the federal Farm Service Agency, said that under agency rules, leases for office space must be put out for bid unless the agencies get a $2 per-square-foot discount from the county.

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"We have the impression that they cannot afford this reduced rent," she said of the county government.

Cashell is the lead liaison between the county and the federal tenants at Maryland Avenue, which include Rural Development, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Washington County Soil Conservation District.

If the lease were put out for bid, the county would be competing against private landlords who could undercut the county's bid, potentially leaving the county with no paying tenants for an office building miles outside of town.

Bob Bricker, who owns the Maryland Avenue complex now housing the agencies, criticized the project, saying it was being built on a "build it and they will come" philosophy that has gotten the county into financial trouble in the past.

"They've got the cart before the horse. I don't build a building unless I have a tenant for that. I can't afford to do that."

Moving the Cooperative Extension Service alone to the ag center would split up the agricultural agencies, which Cashell said wouldn't work.

"We are absolutely committed to being together," she said.

Officials at the Central Maryland Farm Credit, a lending cooperative that is in the Maryland Avenue complex, said they have not decided whether that office would move to the ag center.

Don Schwartz, of the Cooperative Extension Service, said it will go "wherever the commissioners put us."

Schwartz said that the new facility would benefit education, with the extension service and the University of Maryland using it for classes and programs.

However, moving to the ag center has a disadvantage because it isn't as centrally located as the current offices, Schwartz said. "It's not a perfect scenario."

Elmer Weibley, director of the Washington County Soil Conservation District, said his agency's board of supervisors has voted in favor of a move to the ag center. But he said it has not signed a contract and would not do so unless the other agencies moved.

The commissioners plan to discuss the issue at 9 a.m. today and could vote on the project.

If the commissioners decide to move ahead with construction, they will have to come up with $2 million for the project - money that is not in the county's budget. A state matching grant of $350,000, plus $350,000 in local donations would pay $700,000 in costs for the museum.

If the commissioners borrow $2 million by issuing bonds, it will be beyond the $6.5 million borrowing limit set for this year by the county's self-imposed long-term debt reduction plan, County Administrator Rodney M. Shoop said.

Shoop said the county is carefully considering how best to pay for the project.

He said the project would be the first of its kind in the state and would be of tremendous benefit to the agriculture community.

County Public Works Director Gary Rohrer has told the commissioners they need to make a decision soon. A long delay could push completion of construction of the building past Oct. 31, when the agricultural agencies' lease at 1260 Maryland Ave. expires.

The commissioners, who have requested options for scaling back the project because of the cost, could decide to wait a year to reconsider the project. The lease at Maryland Avenue provides for two one-year extensions at the current lease rate, according to Bricker.

A delay would mean that the next board of commissioners would make the decision on whether to build the complex.

Staff Writer Brendan Kirby contributed to this story.

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