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If BOE chooses former Allegheny Energy site, it's understandable

March 31, 2013

Visiting the mound in a bases-loaded, no-out situation, the late Baltimore Orioles Manager Earl Weaver — fresh out of good advice — once told his beleaguered pitcher, “If you know how to cheat, this would be the time.”

In a similar vein, if the City of Hagerstown has an ace up its sleeve to lure the Washington County Board of Education downtown, Tuesday will have to be the day it’s unveiled.

This week, board members indicated they are leaning strongly not to downtown, but to the former Allegheny Energy headquarters on Downsville Pike as the site for their new central offices.

We have supported the idea of moving the board offices downtown, provided the costs were not exorbitant and provided the city had a compelling and well-documented alternative to the advantages offered by Allegheny.

Unfortunately, it appears neither of these conditions will be met.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox believes Allegheny can be bought and renovated for $12.1 million, while downtown prices would start at a minimum of $16.8 million for the Board of Education.

The city, to its credit, has offered to build a parking deck providing parking for board employees at a cost
of $9.2 million. However, Wilcox and the board are savvy enough to know that the city’s expenditure of tax dollars for BOE parking would be viewed as BOE spending. All told, taxpayers would be looking at a minimum cost of $26 million to locate the school board offices downtown versus $12.1 million for the board to relocate to the former Allegheny Energy building.

So the question becomes, is it worth nearly $14 million in taxpayer funding to move the offices
into downtown Hagerstown? Board members appear to believe that this would be a hard sell to the community, and we would agree.

All things being equal, a downtown central office is a noble objective, but all things are apparently not.

Theoretically, the city might offer incentives and developers might offer plans that change the equation before the board votes on the Allegheny purchase on Tuesday. Board member Donna Brightman issued a last call, urging anyone with alternative plans to step forward.

But while some ideas are floating around, the chances appear slim at this late date that the board will
have solid numbers and plans in place from any city-sponsored initiative by then.

We believe this is a failure of City Hall to aggressively get all hands on deck (public and private) to push a workable site, and supply the board with some hard numbers for comparison. Perhaps the city, in the beginning at least, didn’t think the board would move this fast on the Allegheny site. But the simple truth is that the board has moved quickly and efficiently, while the city has spun its wheels.

If a downtown developer does step forward at the 11th hour, the board could delay its vote while it considers the plan, although it would cost the school system $50,000 to extend its option on the
Allegheny property. That means any city plan will have to be serious and rich in details to make evaluating it worth the cost. We will be pleasantly surprised if such a plan exists.

The Allegheny site offers a number of other advantages aside from cost — easy access, plenty of parking, room for a new school and even some excess land that could be sold to recoup some of the
property’s price. That’s a lot of amenities for the city to try to offset.

In the final analysis, the board is correct when it says its job is to educate kids, not to be an economic engine for the city. If both missions could be accomplished simultaneously, we would be strongly in favor of it. Unfortunately, it appears the board would be forced to accept too many compromises, financial and otherwise, if it were to move into the city.

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