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Questions surround plans for university

July 12, 2009|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Nearly a year has passed since the hoopla over an India-based university's purchase of the former Allegheny Energy headquarters near Hagerstown.

Washington County officials and the sellers wore Indian shawls and garlands to celebrate. The new owners announced grand visions -- undergraduate and graduate degree programs, a hospital and trauma center, and $3.5 million worth of upgrades within a year.

Eleven months later, little more has happened. It's not known when or if Vinayaka Missions America University will move ahead with its higher-education plan, which would have to go before the Maryland Higher Education Commission for approval.

Washington County commercial real estate broker and counselor Syd Machat, who worked with Vinayaka on the property transaction, said he knows only that the project is "status quo."

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In April, a few attempts by The Herald-Mail to reach Vinayaka officials through Machat were unsuccessful. An e-mail to Chancellor A. Shanmugasundaram in India bounced back.

On Friday, Machat said he expects to hear and pass along an update about the project in the fall.

Timothy Troxell, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission, said Machat recently told him the former headquarters building on Downsville Pike is almost ready to be put on the market for leasing.

One tenant is there now, occupying a small percentage of the space: Mountainside Teleport Corp., a subsidiary of Intelsat Global Service Corp., a satellite services business.

Troxell said Mountainside Teleport had been using the main building's basement and an auxiliary building, but stopped using the basement space about a month ago.

He said the company's lease will expire soon.

A message left for Mountainside Teleport on Friday was not returned.

In August 2008, Vinayaka Missions America University bought the former Allegheny Energy headquarters and 45 acres from the Fulton family for $8.5 million.

The university said it was making its first foray in the United States after operating 27 other educational institutions.

"This is indeed a great pleasure," A.S. Ganesan, the university's pro-chancellor, said at the time. "America has been our dream, and today, that dream has been realized."

Speaking as a university representative, Selvin Kumar said the campus would offer noncredit courses starting in October 2008.

It would add bachelor's degree programs, then master's and doctorate programs, Kumar said.

Kumar also said the university already operated three hospitals in India, and planned to open a hospital and trauma center at the Downsville Pike property.

Contacted a few months ago, Kumar said he no longer was connected to Vinayaka Missions America University.

Even if the educational programs proceed, the hospital proposal appears to have been scrapped.

Troxell said the idea might have been floated without understanding what goes into opening a hospital in Maryland.

"I think they were just thinking of potential uses," he said Friday.

Machat said the former Allegheny Energy headquarters is being maintained.

The new owners might be guided by long-term patience, which is why there have been no substantive changes to the property, he suggested.

Troxell said a difficult worldwide economy might be playing a part, too.

"They're just sitting tight," he said.

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