Senior center as envisioned should not have failed

December 12, 2012

It is disappointing that Washington County was not able to seal the deal on a modern new senior center that had been planned for a site on the Hagerstown Community College campus. State funding was delayed, bids disappointed the commissioners and before all was said and done, the county was looking for a backup plan.

So instead, the county will settle for renovating some aging armory buildings on the city’s northeast side.

Last week, a divided Hagerstown City Council council voted to sell the property to the county for $625,000. Funding for the purchase will come from a federal grant.

For Hagerstown, this transaction makes something out of nothing. The city had leased the property to the federal government for $1 a year for the past 60 years.

A minority of council members favored holding on to the property and leasing it to the county. Under this plan, the block-grant funding would have been used by the county to renovate the complex, instead of being given directly to the city for an outright purchase. But as the majority of council members stated, the lump sum can be used to pay for a significant city improvement, such as tearing down a decaying city power plant or helping the board of education relocate its central offices downtown.

As for the senior center itself, the county could have done worse. The location seems central enough, and certainly there should be ample space to meet the county’s growing senior needs. Of course, the county’s track record on buying old buildings isn’t the best, as evidenced by an environmentally sick downtown bank building that the county bought for office space without performing due diligence.

Commissioner Terry Baker voiced concerns that the old armory buildings might have similar problems, and urged that the project be delayed. But the grant money will expire Dec. 31, so expediency seems like a risk the county needs to take. And County Administrator Greg Murray assured the commissioners that an inspection has already been completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In the end, we can appreciate that the County Commissioners had to draw the line somewhere as the proposed new center grew ever more costly, even as its scope was scaled back. Why there was such a discrepancy between what the county thought it would cost and the actual contractor bids is something that should be investigated. If work is as scarce as everyone says, it would seem that competition among contractors would be high and bids low. But apparently there was something in the formula that the county didn’t foresee. For the sake of future projects and future planning, the commissioners need to find out what went wrong.

But beyond that, it is difficult to look at this project and not see one more example of a progressive idea in Washington County gone sour. There is no reason a project such as the senior center as originally envisioned should have failed. In the final analysis, a good situation was made bad and a bad situation was made acceptable. It might have worked out, but the citizens of Washington County are right to expect better.

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