Cecil County Council OKs Basell Property for New VoTech School; Classes Could Begin in Early 2015
After years of attempts to find a cost-effective solution to the shortage of vocational and technical education slots for Cecil County public school students, the County Council Tuesday night voted to approve a plan for a new $18.9 million votech school at the 91-acre Basell property in Elkton.
The Council’s 3-2 vote was on legislation to authorize the schools to proceed with an option to acquire the property, leading to a subsequent purchase upon completion of engineering and ‘due diligence’ evaluations of the site and its existing 158,000-square foot, two story facility—including 18,750 square feet of modernized scientific laboratories.
Voting for the project were Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) and Councilors Alan McCarthy (R-1) and Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2). Opposing the Basell site acquisition were Councilors Diana Broomell (R-4) and Michael Dunn (R-3).
“I don’t wish that it fails,” Broomell said of the tech school, but “I don’t think this is the way it should have been done.” Broomell had advocated expanding the existing tech school on its North East site, including use of modular or portable classrooms.
“This is a great opportunity to train and educate our youth,” Hodge said. “We have been shortchanging these students.”
For many years, there have been more students seeking vo-tech classes than the part-time, limited 45-year-old school in North East has been able to provide. There has been a consistent waiting list of at least 150 students for tech classes, and many students graduate from county high schools without ever getting into the tech classes they want. And the old tech school, which looks like a cinder-block prison, does not have the facilities and labs for many of the high-tech training businesses want in their future employees.
The Basell site, built by a pharmaceutical firm as its headquarters before mergers prompted a move out of state, was originally valued at more than $20 million when it was put on the market for sale in 2006. But in the economic recession its asking price was slashed to $6.5 million—an attractive prospect that piqued the interest of CCPS.
But the former county Board of Commissioners controlled by the Three Amigos political faction of Broomell, Dunn and former Commissioner James Mullin refused even to consider a purchase last year. (Hodge and then-Commissioner Tari Moore strongly supported the Basell project, and upon becoming County Executive Moore worked with CCPS officials to push the project forward.)
But a Baltimore County real estate investment firm, Blue & Obrecht Realty, and a partnership of Baltimore area investors snapped up the Basell site for just $5 million in April. The new owners immediately re-listed it for sale at $12 million, apparently hoping to get a quick, “flipper” profit without actually developing the site or finding a paying tenant.
CCPS got the purchase price down to $8.25 million, plus a $60,000 a month “lease” arrangement for one year ($720,000) for a total cost of $8.97 million. That yielded a nearly $4 million gain for the real estate investors and Cecil County ended up having to pay more that it would have if the Three Amigos had allowed the schools to act last year.
Apart from the basic costs of acquisition of the Basell property, renovation costs to convert it to school usage are estimated at $9.9 million. That would yield a total expenditure of more than $18.8 million to develop the new tech school. State school construction funds would contribute $4 million of that cost—and CCPS previously offered to contribute $1.5 million from its reserve funds—for a new net county government cost of about $13.3 million.
That figure is vastly cheaper than previous estimates of at least $40 million to build a new votech school from scratch. And the 91 acres of the Basell site are expected to provide added benefits to the county, such as parkland, athletic fields and potential new business and economic development opportunities.
Dr. D’Ette Devine, superintendent of schools, was elated after the Tuesday evening vote, saying, “This is a thrilling moment.” She said school officials have already been having discussions with an architect to explore renovation designs for the property and that CCPS hoped to have the first votech students begin classes at the site in January, 2015.
Meanwhile, members of the Campaign For Liberty ( C4L) conservative group sought to drum up opposition to the Basell project in the final hours leading up to the vote. A bundle of 52 postcards was hand delivered to the Council– bearing the logo of the C4L group and noting the cards had been paid for by the group– stating that bonds that would pay for the school and other projects “would plunge Cecil County deeper into debt.” The cards appeared to have been signed by the same person, with each name written in the same black ink and the same capitalized block letters style.
At a recent public hearing on the school proposal, 25 people spoke in favor of the Basell purchase and no speakers opposed it.