The Washington County Board of Education ended months of speculation Tuesday afternoon by voting unanimously to buy the former Allegheny Energy building on Downsville Pike to house its administrative offices.
The $5.5 million purchase agreement includes more than 44 acres that one day could serve as the site for an elementary or middle school.
Last week, schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox told board members that renovating the 10435 Downsville Pike office building is estimated to cost $6.6 million.
“I think it is in the best interest of the board. I think it is the most cost-effective thing we can do. I think it provides us with the most flexibility and ... I give my whole-hearted support to this particular effort,” said board member Wayne D. Ridenour, who made the motion to move forward with the purchase of the Downsville Pike property.
Before Ridenour made that motion, Board President Justin Hartings asked if there was a motion to extend the board’s option on the Downsville Pike property for $50,000. No one made such a motion.
“For years, I think we’ve all heard ... that the elected boards in this county can never make a decision. We can never pull a trigger. We talk things to death ...” board member Donna Brightman said.
Two years ago, the issue of future offices for the Board of Education arose during a meeting with the Greater Hagerstown Committee and city officials.
“To me, it’s time to make the decision,” Brightman said Tuesday.
Board members talked about how space in the Downsville Pike office building provided flexibility, including eliminating the need for some other properties that now provide storage and administrative space, and having room for student programming that could free up school space.
“So I think, considering our students, not just the costs associated with it, this has to be our choice, in my opinion” board member Jacqueline Fischer said.
In an interview after the meeting, Hartings said the Downsville Pike property provides more flexibility and added value than either of the options the school board heard earlier in the day.
Before its public business meeting Tuesday, the board met, separately, behind closed doors with two development groups looking to help revitalize downtown. Those groups were local developer Peter Perini, working with Columbia, Md.-based Manekin; and representatives of the Sora group, which is working with the city of Hagerstown to redevelop downtown.
City officials have lobbied the school board to move downtown. Last week, several board members said city officials hadn’t provided “hard numbers” regarding the cost of such a move.
When asked for his reaction to the school board’s decision after the Hagerstown City Council meeting Tuesday night, Mayor David S. Gysberts said, “My reaction is no comment.”
Ridenour said just as city officials think having the school board downtown could spur redevelopment, having the school board offices on Downsville Pike could provide “seed for development along that corridor.”
Perini, who was present for the board’s vote, said he was disappointed in the outcome, but credited the board for making a decision.
Perini said he and Manekin officials talked to the board Tuesday morning about building an energy-efficient office building downtown that would cost in the range of the $12.1 million the board was looking at to buy and renovate the Downsville Pike space. The board could choose the site downtown, though Perini said he was recommending a site on West Washington Street.
Bruce Poole, a representative with the Sora group, said in a phone interview that the school board had “some tough choices to make because ... what I told them was they had to choose between liquidity and cash flow versus land acquisition.”
Wilcox has said the school system’s fund balance, which is $12.5 million, could be used to pay for the purchase and renovation of the Downsville Pike property.
As for Sora, Poole said its representatives will “sit down with the city and have a very forthright discussion.”
A lot of groups have expressed an interest in moving downtown with Sora’s efforts, Poole said.
“A lot of this comes down to the city developing a consensus” about what it wants to do and whether there’s a role for Sora, Poole said.
In January, the school board decided not to renovate its aging Commonwealth Avenue administrative complex, which has millions of dollars in deferred maintenance.
The school board’s decision on what to do about future offices took on greater urgency Feb. 19, when the board voted unanimously to enter a purchase agreement with Vinayaka Missions America University for the Downsville Pike property that once served as the corporate headquarters for Allegheny Energy.
The first window of opportunity the board had to buy the building, without extending its option another 33 days by paying a nonrefundable $50,000, expires this week.
Wilcox said last week that an aggressive schedule could have enough renovations to the Downsville Pike building completed for a phased-in move to begin in December.
Staff writer Holly Shok contributed to this story.
How they voted:
Motion: To move forward with the purchase agreement for 10435 Downsville Pike
President Justin Hartings: Yes
Vice President Paul Bailey: Yes
Donna Brightman: Yes
Jacqueline Fischer: Yes
Karen Harshman: Yes
Wayne Ridenour: Yes
Melissa Williams: Yes