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Hagerstown former Municipal Electric Light Plant 'huge liability'

December 20, 2012|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com
  • The former Municipal Electric Light Plant on Eastern Blvd. south in Hagerstown.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

It’s been known for years that the former Municipal Electric Light Plant in Hagerstown’s East End is a deteriorating eyesore, but it’s also a major public hazard, a city councilman said last week.

Calling the building a “huge liability,” Councilman Lewis C. Metzner stressed that the city needs to take action soon to remediate the loose asbestos inside the blighted MELP building and clean up the 2.96-acre property that borders Antietam Creek at the intersection of Eastern Boulevard south and Mt. Aetna Road.

“It’s a danger to our firefighters. It’s a danger to our police officers,” Metzner said during the council’s Dec. 11 meeting. “It’s a danger for kids who want to get in through this fence.

“It’s a dangerous place — it’s not just an ugly place.”

Michael Spiker, the city’s director of utilities, on Dec. 11 provided an update to the five-member council at City Hall on the status of talks with the current owner of the property, Partners Marketing LLP, a firm based in Staunton, Va., and headed by David Harshman.

Spiker said it’s been more than a year and Partners Marketing still has not been able to finalize a deal to take the building down or present a proposed settlement agreement for the city to reclaim the land.

The city previously offered $750,000 — $500,000 in unappropriated Capital Improvement Program funds and another $250,000 in future bond proceeds — as a contribution toward the demolition, to be paid upon completion of the cleanup of the property, according to Spiker’s memo to the council.

Once restored to meet environmental regulations, the property would be given back to the city.

The issue is — and always has been — the cost, potentially millions, and neither side is “willing to take a financial risk,” Metzner said.

Many of the major systems containing high-value scrap metal, like boilers and large steel girders, are still inside the structure, Spiker said.

“The big stuff is left in there,” he said. “That’s where the value is.”

With possibly “seven figures” worth of scrap in the building, Metzner said it has produced a stalemate in striking a deal since neither the owners nor the city can pinpoint the value inside without first tearing down the structure, making it impossible to determine the exact cost of a demolition contract.

“Everybody knows there’s a whole lot of money in there in metals, but nobody is willing to take the risk,” he said. “Somebody could make a million dollars, somebody could lose a million dollars ... So we’re frozen.”

Harshman said in August that it’s “just not a good situation ... somebody is going to lose.”

Metzner estimated the value of the available scrap has probably dropped by about 25 percent over the past year. It could be even more — as much as 50 percent — if the country goes off the “fiscal cliff,” he added.

Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire also supported a point made previously by Metzner, that demolition ultimately rests on the shoulders of the city even though the property has been privately owned since 1996.

“Somebody’s got to decide that they’re going to take this building down, and it’s our responsibility and we need to do it,” Metzner said Tuesday.

Aleshire and Councilman Martin E. Brubaker both suggested that the city look into requesting money from the state to help buffer the cost and avoid a consequential tax hike to cover a potential financial loss in the process.

At the Dec. 11 meeting, Spiker said city staff requested an additional 30 days to allow Harshman to submit an agreement of sale to the city by Jan. 10, 2013. If that does not take place, the city could purchase the property, condemn it or begin the process of eminent domain at the direction of council, Spiker wrote in his memo.

A trial jury would be the deciding factor in a condemnation case, which could result in a negative award because of the condition of the property, city attorney John Urner said. The property’s current assessed value is about $176,000, according to Spiker.

Over the past 14 months, city officials have tossed around different ideas for an adaptive reuse of the property, including an Antietam Creek access point or a park. The area was brought up recently by Hagerstown Suns majority owner Bruce Quinn as a potential site for a new $25 million multiuse stadium for the team.

Councilman Donald F. Munson said not only is the property an eyesore, it’s also in the way of what could be “a lot of successful development” in the city’s East End.

“There’s a lot of possibility down there,” he said. “We just need to figure out some way to resolve this problem.”

Spiker said he plans to consult legal counsel and return with an update Jan. 8.

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