Non-profit Seeks to Convert Buckworth Center to Seniors Housing in Elkton

June 6, 2012

The vintage and vacant Buckworth Center in Elkton– that once housed the Cecil County jail and more recently hosted seniors’ programs– is being proposed for renovation as a 50-apartment housing for the elderly project. The non-profit developers would pay the county government $400,000 for the property, which has been for sale for years with no takers.

Home Partnership, Inc., a Harford County based group that has also worked in Cecil County, submitted a proposed “letter of intent” to the County Commissioners, who discussed it briefly at their Tuesday worksession.

County officials emphasized the project is still in a very early stage of planning and development, but the property at 214 North Street has been vacant for several years, as is the nearby former county government building, leaving an eerily empty stretch of the street that was once a bustling center of government and community activity. Before the county decides on the proposal, it will go to a public hearing, commissioners said.

David Maheney, the county’s housing director, worked to develop the plan with the non-profit group, which has been working in Cecil County as well as its Harford homebase to promote homeownership, help families avoid foreclosure, and provide assistance to families on closing costs for home purchases.

Home Partnership also worked with the Osprey development group on the reconstruction of the old Cedar Hill apartments in North East, which received state and federal funds for that redevelopment project. The non-profit has also renovated houses in Harford County that were then offered for sale to local families.

The county had listed the Buckworth property with a local Realtor, who appeared before the commissioners last year to lament the difficulty of trying to market the property without investing some money into improvements on the antique building. The commissioners balked at putting any money into the property and the Realtor’s listing expired without any offers.

At one point, the profit-making Ingerman Group, developers of the nearby new Elkton Senior Housing apartments on High Street, considered the Buckworth property for a project but decided against it, multiple sources said.

Maheney said he was considering what might be done with the property to make it a productive part of the downtown Elkton landscape again and at one point, he said, he envisioned turning the building into condos that might attract younger, more affluent residents interested in a modernized older building. But the key to such a concept, he said, would be extension of the MARC train line to Elkton, which would have brought commuter rail service nearby. But that much-advocated rail project is still many years away, if ever, so the senior housing alternative was pursued.

The Home Partnership proposal offers the county $400,000 for the property, and states that the price represents a “concession” by the county in furtherance of the goal of providing affordable housing in Elkton. The plan calls for 50 apartments, but the offer could be rescinded if town officials do not allow that number.

Maheney said the group and county officials have been discussing the project with town officials and working to assure them that the historic character of the building’s façade would be retained. He said the property is not on state or federal historic registers, so that would ease the review process, but the non-profit group recognizes that the building is part of the historic landscape of the town. The building would be expanded in the rear with new construction.

The project would not be set aside for just very low income residents but would reflect a mix of income and rent levels. Construction would be supported by state and federal housing aid programs administered by the state, including an estimated $800,000 to $1.5 million in federal Low Income Tax Credits and an uncertain amount of state Rental Housing Funds.

The federal tax credits are worth much more than their face value since they are sold to private investors to offset income from other sources and reduce their income tax liability. By selling the tax credits, developers of the housing project are able to raise money needed for construction.

But because Home Partnership is a non-profit, it can build and operate the apartments more inexpensively than a profit-making owner, Maheney said. They hope to win town approvals and assemble their application for submission to state housing officials this fall, he added.

Meanwhile, because the North Street property had been widely advertised and marketed for sale, it apparently won’t get snagged in a procedural tiff among the County Commissioners that has stalled the sale of a vacant county-owned single family homesite to the non-profit Habitat for Humanity.

Habitat approached the county and offered $5,000 for 253 Sycamore Road in Elkton. The site had numerous site and grading issues but the group felt that with its volunteers and donors, it could make a go of a homebuilding project. But Commissioners Robert Hodge (R-5) and Diana Broomell (R-4) had objected that any county-owned property should be offered for public bid, even though the Habitat’s goals are laudable and supported by the county government.

So the county spent $171 to advertise the property in the Cecil Whig and an adjacent property owner submitted a one sentence, handwritten bid offering $25 more than the initial Habitat offer, which was publicly reported at the time.

Broomell said Tuesday that the county should go with the highest bidder. But Commissioner Tari Moore (R-2) said that in this instance, the Habitat offer was known and that gave another bidder an unfair advantage. Hodge said he was satisfied that commissioners had “fixed the process” by putting the property out for bid, but added that he thought the county should “reject all bids” and try again so as to be consistent.

But Commissioners James Mullin (R-1) and Michael Dunn (R-3) sided with Moore, so Habitat won out.

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