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Barr stepped aside so town could buy plant

August 31, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

HANCOCK - Before the town of Hancock purchased the former Fleetwood Travel Trailers property with a donation from a former resident, Washington County Board of Commissioners President John F. Barr made an offer to buy the property, Hancock officials revealed this month.

Barr confirmed he had made an offer on the property, but backed off after he learned the town had an opportunity to buy it.

"They had a benefactor that was willing to match the price, and to be honest with you, I thought it was probably in Hancock's best interest to capitalize on that," Barr said. "So I kind of let them have the contract at the price I had negotiated."

The town bought the former plant at 35 South St. in early July with a $900,000 gift from former resident Stanley Fulton Jr.

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Barr said he originally was interested in renovating the property and bringing in a startup company that wanted to research and manufacture hydrogen or electric cars.

"Basically, I was speculating," he said.

Barr's interest in the property was brought up at a recent Hancock Town Council meeting after Hancock resident Ralph Salvagno told the council that a lack of transparency about the transaction had left many residents with questions.

"The purchase just kind of dropped out of midair," Salvagno said.

Salvagno questioned whether it was appropriate for the town to be in the business of owning real estate and wanted to know who was consulted about the purchase, who is responsible for managing and marketing the property, and where the money would come from to study, repair, market and manage it.

Improvements and marketing

Hancock officials stressed that they plan to rely almost exclusively on state and federal aid, rather than town funds, to improve the property.

"I think the money's there, through grants," said Town Manager David Smith, who estimated it could cost half a million dollars to turn the property into the industrial park that town officials envision.

State and federal grants already have been promised to cover the cost of a feasibility study that will reveal other specific needs for which the town can request grants, Hancock Mayor Daniel A. Murphy said.

"We're looking at the picture of a town in crisis, in a state that's got money to give to a town in crisis, and we've got legislators on our side," Murphy said.

When asked about a comment made by Timothy R. Troxell, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission (EDC), that the property would not be a destination on bus tours for prospective employers, Murphy said he intended to contact all of the Washington County Commissioners to ask that the EDC treat Hancock like part of the county by including it on the bus tours.

"If it doesn't happen, there definitely is a problem, because that's what (the EDC is) there for," Murphy said.

Marketing also will be handled largely through state and county economic development efforts, Murphy said. Who manages the property will depend on the complexity of the job, and the work will be handled by the town's current staff if that is feasible, he said.

Asked about an "exit strategy," Smith said the town has a "fallback strategy" for the property, which is to rent it out for warehousing.

'A win-win for everybody'

Murphy said that if the purchase seemed sudden, that's because it was. Smith added that the haste "wasn't intentional, just necessary to make the deal happen in the way it needed to happen."

Fulton made the offer to donate the money for the property after Smith called him to ask for help funding repairs to the town's swimming pool, Smith said.

"It was a 15-minute conversation," Smith said. There was no solicitation. He said, 'What can I do to help Hancock bring some jobs back?'"

A day or two after Fulton made the offer, the full council met and voted unanimously to buy the property, Murphy said. The council knew a lot about the property after years of working with Fleetwood and economic development officials to promote it to potential buyers, he said.

When Smith contacted Fleetwood's corporate office in California, he learned Barr had made an offer and set up a meeting with him.

Barr said he wanted what was best for Hancock and, after learning the details of Fulton's offer, told town officials they should take it, Smith said.

"It was amicable, believe me," Murphy said. "He wanted what was best."

Randy Pittman, 64, of Hancock, asked the council why they didn't let Barr purchase the property, keep it on the town's tax rolls and ask Fulton to invest the money in a trust fund for Hancock's downtown instead.

"That's not what the money was made available for," Murphy replied. He added that the tax loss was minimal and that the town's plans to turn the property into an industrial park would bring in jobs.

Barr said he will do anything he can to help the town in its endeavor through his positions on the board of commissioners and the economic development commission.

"They've got 110 percent of my support," he said.

Barr said he also left the door open to talk about purchasing the property from the town if it doesn't work out for them.

"It's a win-win for everybody," Barr said.

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