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Seniors pack meeting to back Richardson's site

April 21, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN -- About 100 area senior citizens packed the Washington County Commissioners' meeting room and the hallway outside Tuesday to advocate for a senior center in the former Richardson's restaurant building on Dual Highway.

Despite the show of support for the Richardson's location, several of the commissioners expressed reservations about committing to the site.

The commissioners asked an attorney for the Richardson's building's new owners to draft a proposed lease by the end of the week for further consideration.

In the meantime, commissioners William J. Wivell, Kristin B. Aleshire and James F. Kercheval said they wanted to investigate the potential of another site, a vacant U.S. Army Reserve building on Willard Street, behind Richardson's.

Wivell said the building is owned by the federal government and could potentially be transferred to the county if it is declared to be surplus, but he did not know how long that process would take.

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The Army Reserve building is bigger than Richardson's, and has a full gym and kitchen, Aleshire said.

The commissioners agreed to write a letter to Maryland's senators stating their interest in the Army Reserve building and seeking a tour or a copy of the building's plans.

Kercheval said he was reluctant to commit to the Richardson's site because the county would be leasing it from a private landlord, with no option to buy. He said it would make more financial sense to invest in a county-owned facility.

The Fulton family, which bought the Richardson's building at 710 Dual Highway last month for $650,000, would pay for about $500,000 worth of renovations and start the county's rent at about $100,000 a year, attorney Jason M. Divelbiss said. The owners proposed a 15-year lease, he said.

Aleshire pointed out that before 15 years were up, the county would have paid more than what the owners paid for the building and renovations combined, but would have no ownership of the site.

He said he would wait to see the proposed lease terms before ruling out the Richardson's site.

The discussion came after several of the seniors in attendance pleaded with the commissioners to pick the Richardson's site.

"I've been a senior citizen for many years now and if we don't soon get a senior center permanently, I won't be around to use it," said Pauline Wetzel of Hagerstown.

Wetzel said she moved to Washington County from Allegany County, Md., which she said has limited financial resources but has had a senior center as long as she lived there.

Seniors said the Richardson's site was ideal because it is handicapped-accessible, has space for an off-street bus stop and is familiar to many seniors who frequented the former restaurant.

"I know money's a big factor; money talks, but seniors talk, too," Wetzel said. "Without the seniors in this county, some of the places would close down," she added, referring to organizations that rely on seniors for volunteers.

The only guest to speak against moving the senior center to the Richardson's site was Michael Fotta, co-owner of Governor's Landing Deli and Restaurant in Williamsport, which he said is interested in the Richardson's building.

He said if he got the building, he would hire up to 30 new people and expand his business into catering.

Leaving Richardson's for use as a restaurant would also increase tax revenue for the county, Fotta said.

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