Harford to use land gift for arts center, park

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A large wooded parcel along the bustling Route 24 corridor in Abingdon will become a regional arts center with theaters, galleries, classrooms and community meeting space under a proposal for how to use property unexpectedly left to Harford County by a widow who lived in New Jersey.

A larger adjoining tract will be turned into public parkland — described by some as Harford's "Central Park" — under a county-backed plan. The area sits squarely in Harford's designated growth zone and is the largest undeveloped parcel between Interstate 95 and Bel Air, the county seat.

In the four years since Emily Bayless Graham died — leaving more than 110 acres valued at up to $17 million — local officials have been working to untangle her estate and honor her wishes. The parties believe they have finally arrived at a plan for the land that Graham would have approved of before she died at age 94.

"It's an unusual situation," said Robert McCord, the county's chief attorney. "I can't recall any other time when Harford County was the recipient of so much prime real estate as a bequest. … The fact that this property is located in the heart of what is known as the 'development envelope' makes it particularly valuable. It makes it our Central Park."

The bequest represents a potential boon to Harford County and a nonprofit arts organization that has been looking for land where it can build a cultural center. The county has agreed to lease a portion of the land to the Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, a private group that will take the lead in raising money, planning and building the cultural center. A 2008 study estimated its construction cost at about $60 million.

Thomas McGrath, a New York-based attorney who served as the elderly woman's guardian and is now trustee of the Emily Bayless Graham Charitable Trust, said she was a Maryland native who had no children or siblings and inherited the land from an uncle. He said he visited Graham regularly at a nursing home in New Jersey and they had extensive conversations about the Harford tract.

He said she had received numerous offers from developers but described Graham as a "strong-willed" woman who had no interest in selling the land to be "concreted over" and wanted to donate the tract for uses that would benefit Harford residents.

"She was a remarkable woman," McGrath said. "She was extremely intelligent, well-read. She loved nature. She was one of the smartest people I ever knew."

Sallee Kunkel Filkins, executive director of the Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, said the Graham property was her group's first choice after considering more than two dozen parcels, because it is "prime real estate" and easily accessible from I-95.

"It's ideal," she said. "The arts community is thrilled. This was our dream location."

The property is situated on both sides of Route 24, south of Wheel Road and the Festival at Bel Air shopping center. According to McGrath, 69 acres east of Route 24 is to be used as parkland and 41 acres west of the road will be the site of the arts center.

Before the county can take possession of the land, officials must satisfy certain terms and conditions. They have taken part in a complex probate process involving multiple versions of Graham's will and groups with competing claims. County officials have commissioned a master plan to show how the larger parcel would be prepared for public use.

Officials say the county is on track to take title to the first section, the 41 acres targeted for the arts center, by the end of December, and the 69-acre parcel can later be conveyed separately. They say Graham's gift is more valuable now than when she wrote her will, given the recent influx of people who have moved to Harford County as part of the federal government's Base Realignment and Closure program and the growing need for cultural and recreational resources.

Because of the way the will was written and the conditions that must be met, Graham's gift turns out to be much more than the land itself, McCord said. "It means … her legacy is worth more and will go farther in the future than she could have ever imagined."

County officials are making arrangements to donate a large county-owned parcel to a Quaker group in return for its agreement to drop all claims to the Graham property. The Baltimore Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends had argued in court that an earlier will had promised the land to the Friends.

To resolve the matter, the county has offered to give a nearly 66-acre parcel at 2704 Conowingo Road to a group called Harford Friends School Inc. Representatives for the Friends could not be reached for comment.

The county has agreed to hire prominent New York architect Hugh Hardy, who guided the restorations of New York's Radio City Music Hall and Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre, to prepare a master plan to show that the property will be developed in keeping with the donor's wishes. Hardy is also working on the design for the arts center.

Filkins said Graham's gift will significantly improve the quality of life for Harford residents. "This county and this region are ready for an arts center," she said. "It's a great selling point."

McGrath said the former Emily Bayless grew up in Maryland, then went to college out of state and worked as a researcher at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. She married George Graham, a New Jersey businessman. McGrath said he met Emily Graham through her husband, a legal client, and that he became Graham's guardian after her husband died in 1995.

After months of deliberations, her 1981 will was approved by a New Jersey judge in December 2009, and the land was the largest asset of the Graham charitable trust. As trustee, McGrath said, he wants to be sure the county will use the land in keeping with Graham's intent. If the arts center is not completed by 2018, McGrath said, the 41-acre portion might revert to the trust.

McGrath selected the arts center plan as a use that realizes Graham's vision for turning the land into a public amenity, but he has sought firm assurances that the project would take shape.

The arts center is being designed by Hardy's firm to accommodate theater, dance, music, the visual and literary arts, the "traditional arts," and arts education. Filkins said preliminary plans call for three theaters ranging from 100 to 1,200 seats, art galleries, classrooms, a "heritage museum" and parking for several hundred cars.

The arts group must execute a long-term lease with the county, complete design work and raise money in time to meet the 2018 opening deadline. McCord said the arts center probably would be built with a combination of public and private funds.

Filkins said her group plans to collaborate with institutions such as the Walters Art Museum to put on exhibits that might not otherwise appear in Harford County. She said the Graham property is well-suited for an arts center because of its central location.

"We want to be accessible to people from all over," she said. "All of our studies have indicated this will be a regional draw."

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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