By Emily Blackner
Town-gown relations seem stronger than ever as Chestertown and Washington College finally reach an agreement transferring ownership of the Sgt. John H. Newnam armory property to WC.
The agreement, officially announced Dec. 6, has been months in the making. As reported in the Elm, Washington College initially had some doubts about accepting the deal as it stood in October because of added stipulations about constructing a rail trail through college property with college funding. There were also questions about the added costs to WC of providing 12 additional scholarships to Chestertown students, according to the Kent County News. As a result of these concerns, the College officially withdrew its offer in a letter written by WC President Mitchell Reiss dated Nov. 16.
The Chestertown Town Council then met in a closed session to determine if a compromise could be reached to allow the transaction to be completed. The Council officially voted on Monday, Dec. 5 to accept a new proposal submitted by WC.
“Many people, both at the College and in town, have wanted this deal to happen for a number of years,” said President Reiss. “We are pleased that we were finally able to get it done.”
The final agreement closely resembled the original deal from July of 2011. WC will “assume the debt, pay for an environmental study the town had performed, and provide access for the local community to the building and the property via a riverfront walkway the town will develop,” President Reiss said.
The armory debt stands at about $320,000 and the environmental survey for which the town will be reimbursed is around $10,000. The deal also specifies that no fewer than five days will be granted per year for community access to the armory building for events and that the walkway along the Chester River be accessible from Quaker Neck Road.
There was a new point added to the approved deal as well.
“There was also a one-time payment of $200,000 as an indication of the College’s support for the town’s ambitions for the entire waterfront,” said President Reiss.
The Board of Visitors and Governors reached this agreement during its Dec. 2 and 3 meeting and should help the town with “‘master planning, infrastructure, and recreational initiatives,’” according to a WC press release about the deal.
Although the deal has been approved, several steps have to be taken before any renovations can begin, including negotiations with state agencies to finalize the transfer of property.
“Now that we have an agreement with the town of Chestertown, the Maryland Board of Public Works must approve the sale. This will take several months to complete,” said President Reiss.
Negotiations will likely include the Maryland Military Department and the Maryland Historic Trust as well, because as the Kent County News states, the armory’s 1931 date makes it an historic building subject to easements. The facade and large central room of the armory may have to remain intact, complicating renovations.
“We want to ensure that we renovate the armory in such a manner that it will serve both the College and the community. That will take time, given the dilapidated condition of the building, which has not been used for many years,” President Reiss said. “It will also take a considerable financial investment on the part of the College, and our fund raising efforts are unlikely to commence until the College has formal title to the property.”
The armory property, located outside of Chestertown, adds 3.5 acres to the waterfront land the College purchased in 2008, and will be incorporated into the new waterfront campus WC is planning.
Reiss said that “many folks” were important to this deal’s passage. “A few in particular deserve mention for their role in this last phase: the Mayor [Margo Bailey] and Town Council, the Town Manager, Bill Ingersoll, and the College’s Board of Visitors and Governors, who approved our offer.”
Although there were some bumps along the way, the process as a whole seems to have worked well and resulted in a compromise agreeable to both the town and WC.
“It is further evidence of the strong working relationship the College and the Town have,” said Reiss, “And a hopeful sign that we will be able to work closely together in the future on other projects.”