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columns 10/21

December 27, 2001

Campus shouldn't be up in the air



Perhaps now it is clear why it was so important for the Washington County delegation to play ball with the governor three years ago when he asked their support for a tobacco tax increase in exchange for funding of the University Systems of Maryland branch campus in Hagerstown.

Perhaps now it is clear why bickering over the location for the proposed campus was a crucial waste of time and energy.

Perhaps now it is clear why it was so important to get construction funding for the campus in Hagerstown written into this year's budget and, just as importantly, keep it off a "hit list" of the state's most expendable projects.

The state's economy is in trouble, and so, at least for the time being, is Hagerstown's college campus. Due to our own bumbling, the construction didn't start during the state's flush years, and it now is apparent that this was an important boat not to have missed.

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But miss it we did. Gov. Parris Glendening and the Washington County delegation did see to it that $13.5 million was targeted to transform the vacant Baldwin House/pigeon roost into a downtown showpiece of higher education.

But when the first clouds of economic uncertainty appeared on the horizon last winter, the state beancounters put together a list of spending projects they deemed non-essential. Our campus was on that list.

Lawmakers admit the Baldwin project is in some trouble, at least for the short run. Del. Sue Hecht, the most powerful and believable member of our local delegation, says the campus is "vulnerable," but that eventually it will get done. "It's not going to disappear," she said.

That's some faint comfort. Halley's Comet, technically, does not disappear, but for lengthy stretches it can sure make itself scarce.

It will be popular, but not entirely accurate, to blame the economy and the terrorist attacks if the project stalls before it gets off the ground. Even this summer, as city officials were optimistically predicting construction was imminent, there were rumblings of trouble.

First, obviously, was the fact that the campus was on hold pending further review of the state's economic condition. But second was that deafening silence coming from the state's higher-ed officials.

University of Maryland Systems brass seemed quite excited about the Hagerstown campus - until Glendening decided the building would go downtown in keeping with his Smart Growth initiative.

That seemed to dampen their enthusiasm considerably. Perhaps their feelings were hurt. Or perhaps they're concerned that the downtown site won't attract as many students (or more importantly, as much tuition) as a location on the Interstate.

Coincidently, on the very same day this summer that Mayor Bill Breichner was making a public speech about imminent construction at the campus, a source with state contacts warned me that state education officials suddenly had a lot of projects ranked higher than Hagerstown on their priority list.

If the University Systems folks are taking a yawning interest in Hagerstown, we will lose an important advocate in Annapolis.

With no one to protect their flank, it will be a warm winter for the delegation, which will undoubtedly face tremendous heat to free up the $13.5 million for construction. Problem is, there are a number of projects on the "wait and see if we can afford it" list, and lawmakers from those areas across the state will be clawing like cats to get their money first.

Already our lawmakers are looking for cover. Sen. Don Munson, speaking as if Washington County has no elected voice in Annapolis whatsoever, says "The project is in the governor's hands."

Unfortunately for us, few other senators and delegates across the state are likely to take such a passive, fatalistic view. They'll be in the fray swinging for all they're worth, pressuring the governor, the budget-writing bureaucrats, the money committees - anyone who will listen - that their project is the most important.

In theory, this is why we have representation. The final decision is the governor's, but our representatives ought to be in his ear all session, loudly proclaiming the project's importance and making deals if they have to.

This does, after all, champion the governor's two favorite things, education and Smart Growth. The campus should be a gimmee.

But almost from Day 1, there has been an embarrassment of foot-shooting. The flap over where the campus would be built cost months of delay. Then, even worse, the delegation stalled the project dead in its tracks when it refused to support the governor's cigarette tax hike in exchange for campus funding. Our lawmakers said at the time the flap was no big thing. Boy, were they ever wrong.

Had the delegation cut a very simple deal, the governor would very likely have included some funding for the project in his 1999 supplemental budget and the wheels of construction would have been set in motion.

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