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Sager pleased with campus decision

November 27, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

When it comes to life accomplishments, former Hagerstown Mayor Steven T. Sager said getting Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening to build the university center in downtown Hagerstown "is a big one."

Sager developed the original city proposal to offer the Baldwin House complex as a free site for the University System of Maryland, Hagerstown campus.

The Hagerstown City Council decided to make the offer after Sager pitched the idea to them during a closed-door meeting May 17. The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board later ruled that the mayor and council broke the law when they discussed details of the offer in secret.

What originally prompted Sager to develop the Baldwin House offer was hearing the Frostburg State University Center, which is just a few doors from the Baldwin complex on West Washington Street, would pare back operations at its downtown location if the campus was built outside the city, Sager said.

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While there were times Sager had doubts Glendening would put the campus downtown, he always felt it was the perfect spot for it because it fit perfectly Glendening's Smart Growth initiative, which discourages sprawl and encourages downtown revitalization, he said.

"I felt it was a battle for the heart and soul of the community. As it played out I became more sure of that," Sager said.

The other two sites the governor considered were at Hagerstown Community College and Allegheny Energy's Friendship Technology Site off Interstate 70.

On reflection it appears the importance of an April 30 letter by Maryland Office of Planning Deputy Director Ron Young was overlooked by supporters of the other sites, Sager said.

Young, a former mayor of Frederick, said the Allegheny Energy site meets the requirements of the state act but does not meet "the full intent" of a January 1998 executive order issued by Glendening. Young suggested the campus be built downtown in order to comply with Smart Growth.

Sager, mayor from 1985 to 1997, is now the Western Maryland community manager for the Department of Housing and Community Development. His job involves promoting projects such as the campus, he said.

While Sager may run for office again, his push for the campus site was unconnected to any such aspirations, he said. If he ran in 2001 it would probably be for a council seat, he said.

Glendening's decision, announced Wednesday morning, was based on several factors, including Smart Growth priorities and a cost comparison, spokesman Michael Morrill said. The other two sites were inferior in both respects, he said.

Morrill said it was not a matter of the other two sites being bad but rather that the governor always preferred locating the center downtown if the other two sites weren't much better, he said.

Some opponents of the power company site noted that it was on land zoned agricultural. A campus can be built on agricultural-zoned land, but it might appear to conflict with the governor's Smart Growth initiative as well as his push to preserve agricultural and farmland.

In a newsletter, the environmental group 1,000 Friends of Maryland referred to the power company's site as "the sprawl site" and said it would use precious farmland while referring to the downtown site as "the revitalization site."

"It was a factor but not a deciding factor," Morrill said Wednesday of the zoning concern.

Glendening almost selected the downtown site about a month ago but, at the request of three local business leaders, decided to look at the HCC site, Morrill said.

Sager said that while he kept the governor's office and the state planning office apprised of the campus debate and faxed them all news articles on the issue, he only spoke to Glendening directly about the issue on two occasions, both times at conferences, and each time for less than five minutes.

Speaking to Glendening at a conference in May, Sager said he emphasized that the downtown site supported Smart Growth.

"I wanted to make sure he knew what was involved in the city's offer," Sager said. "I knew it was a deeply held belief,"

The second time was Aug. 22 at the Maryland Association of Counties annual summer conference in Ocean City. The governor asked, "Has it calmed down yet?" referring to rumors that Washington County would lose the campus because of the debate about its location, Sager said.

In between, on June 16, a steering committee of business and government leaders endorsed the Allegheny Energy site a second time, this time over the Baldwin House complex. At that meeting University System Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg and Capital Planner Mark Beck said they preferred the power company site.

"I left the meeting thinking, 'This decision is still the governor's,' " Sager said.

He was frustrated by the meeting because Beck said the costs would be much higher at the downtown site and the project would be delayed if the site was changed to downtown, Sager said.

Both facts were disputed in a later study the Department of General Services did at Glendening's request, Sager said.

According to that study, Morrill said Wednesday, there would be no delay in the campus opening date - probably in 2002 - and the downtown site will cost $11.7 million compared to $12.6 million for the utility site and $16 million to $21 million for the HCC site.

Around mid-June Sager began taking a less public role in the campus decision-making process and referred calls about the proposal to state officials and Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II.

"Bob and I worked close and well together and both enjoyed it," he said.

"We worked really well together," Bruchey agreed. "He was definitely instrumental."

While some questioned whether as a state employee he should be promoting one site, Sager maintains it fits with his department's mission statement.

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