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What's Up Magazine

What Do You Think? Sale of Old City Recreation Center Clouded in Secrecy

Apr 13, 2016 03:05PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Ellen Moyer

Photo by Tony Lewis, Jr.

Originally built in the 1940s as a USO center, the building on St. Mary’s and Compromise Streets was, for 70 years, the go-to place for art and dance classes, basketball, volleyball, boxing, and a host of community recreation events. Colonial Players got its start here too. By the year 2000, recreation programs had outgrown the 13,330 square feet of the downtown City Center. In 2009 it was closed when a new center on Hilltop Lane was opened with programs to meet new interests.

Though closed, the facility still had a useful life as a recreation center for classes and programs within walking distance of downtown employees and residents. That continuing program use seems not to have entered the thinking of City officials. Once a beehive of activity, the building sat empty, abandoned and neglected for five years. In 2015 the City issued a bid for the use of the old USO site with its built-to-last 14-inch masonry walls.

The request for proposals included purchase or lease and a revenue package. On July 27th, 2015, the City Council chose a firm to purchase the building and convert it to six to eight condominiums. With so much done behind closed doors, the public had no clue as to the nature of the proposals received. Perhaps that is why the business community and the elected State Delegates were so invisible on this decision that would impact the City for years to come.

Critics of the City’s action called it “awful” and “confusing.” On July 30th, The Capital in “Our Say” said “the decision strikes a lot of residents as puzzling; shortsighted, and disappointing…more explanation is needed before the City privatizes a structure that has been a public facility…for 70 years.”

Of course no explanation was offered. One Alderman opined that it was important to put the property on the tax rolls. Yet, more than 1,200 housing units are proposed within the City of Annapolis boosting the city’s property tax revenue. According to a January 3rd Capital article, the bid from St. Mary’s School offered $1 million more than the one selected and included $500,000 in lieu of property tax. Do six to eight condos beat that?

It wasn’t until January 3rd, 2016, six months after the Council’s decisive action, when the public would learn for the first time information about the original bidders and their revenue proposals that had been clouded in secrecy for more than a year. There were eight bidders. Proposals included a cultural arts theatre serving 6,000 school students, a maritime seamanship school, and the University of Maryland Environmental Center, all of which built on Annapolis’ special assets, and offered a renewed sense of vitality to the downtown core.

City officials, however, were not swayed by the prestige of the Annapolis Shakespeare Theatre that had letters of support from every related institution in England and the USA; nor were they swayed by the prestige of bringing a University of Maryland Environmental Research Center to the downtown of the Capital City. “How likely is it the city will get such a chance again? We’d like City officials to explain clearly how condos would be superior to this,” opined a proponent for the UMCES.

As responsible economic guardians, City officials must have done an economic and impact analysis for each of the eight bidders. How else could Aldermen make a responsible decision on the best offer? One Alderman has urged the City to cancel its decision and begin again. That is not likely to happen. But surely citizens deserve to know more about the vision and decision process that gave us six to eight more condos.

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