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Former bank building plans still a mystery

Washington County seeks to justify $3 million purchase, but there isn't a 'Plan A' or a 'Plan B'

October 20, 2012|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU | arnoldp@herald-mail.com
  • This building, at 120-128 W. Washington St., is what's known as the former PNC Bank building. It is next to the county administration building, which contains the commissioners' offices as well as those of several county agencies.
By Ric Dugan, Staff Photographer

Most of the Washington County Commissioners said in interviews this past week they are keeping their options open as to how to use the largely empty office building the county bought more than four years ago for $3 million.

Commissioners Ruth Anne Callaham, William B. McKinley and Jeffrey A. Cline said that because the downtown building’s current tenants, renting about a tenth of the space, paid enough last year to cover the entire building’s utility and maintenance costs, there’s no urgent need to decide how to fill the rest of the space.

“You want to make sure you don’t jump too quickly,” Callaham said, noting such variables as whether a multiuse stadium will be built downtown.

“If the stadium is a go, you think about one path” for the largely empty building, she said. “If it’s not a go, you might think about another path.”

But Commissioners President Terry L. Baker said Thursday he wants the commissioners to begin discussing the building’s future. He and the others said the current board hasn’t had any discussions since taking office in late 2010 about how the building could be used.

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Baker, who has raised questions about the building’s condition, said he has asked that all of the commissioners be given a tour of it.

“I want the commissioners to be part of the tour to see the building firsthand and to make a decision as to what’s going to become of it and what the plans are for the building,” Baker said.

Baker said that at his request, county Administrator Gregory B. Murray has agreed to provide the commissioners with copies of any inspections done on the building.

“I want the environmental reports, the structural reports and the settlement sheets from before the purchase and also after the purchase of the properties there,” Baker said.

Buying the building

The building, at 120-128 W. Washington St., is what’s known as the former PNC Bank building. It is next to the county administration building, which contains the commissioners’ offices as well as those of several county agencies.

The previous board of commissioners voted 3-2 in March 2008 to buy the building and some lots in the back for a total of $3.3 million — including $3 million for the building alone — from WWS LLC. WWS had bought the building and the lots for a total of $1.4 million in 2006.

The county’s payment to WWS was in cash, taken from a recent county government surplus, Murray said this past week.

Commissioners James F. Kercheval, Kristin B. Aleshire and John F. Barr voted in favor of the purchase.

Baker and Commissioner William J. Wivell voted against it, largely because they felt the price was too high.

Of those five commissioners, Barr and Baker remained on the board for the current term.

The primary reason for buying the property was so that the county could build a bus transfer station on those back lots, as well as others the county bought from other owners, Murray has said. Because PNC Bank occupied part of the building and had its drive-through on one of the back lots, WWS wouldn’t sell its lots without the building, he said.

After realizing it had to buy the building, too, the county began planning to move some of its agencies out of its 80 W. Baltimore St. offices and into the building, Murray said.

On the date of the vote, Murray was quoted as saying that at least some county departments could move in within six months.

Economy stalls move

But the nation’s recession and its aftermath in the years since then have slashed Maryland’s funding for counties and sharply reduced many of the tax revenues on which the county depends, Murray has said. In addition, a bank that had been renting 6,000 square feet of space in the county administration building moved out, opening even more office space to the county.

And, more recently, Hagerstown officials unveiled a proposal to build a stadium downtown. If that is built, the city would need the space at 80 W. Baltimore St., which means the county would have to move those employees elsewhere, Murray said.

So the former PNC Bank building, from which PNC later moved, but in which two law firms and an accounting firm still are tenants, has remained largely empty and unused. It has been used on occasion for employee activities and public hearings, the county has said.

The heating and air conditioning units for the three tenants are separate from those used in the rest of the building, Murray has said. And, except for when there are employee activities or hearings, the unused parts of the building are not cooled and, during the winter, are kept heated only enough so the pipes don’t burst, he has said.

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