By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun
7:44 PM PST, February 8, 2013
A 250-year-old grist mill near the mouth of the Susquehanna River has sat mostly vacant since the end of the Civil War, its thick stone walls serving no purpose but the protection of a few old tools.
Though the building is historic — it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places decades ago — it is uncelebrated and receives few visitors. While many old mills are being restored, plans to develop the Cecil County property have stalled.
The lack of interest in the old mill is partly due to its owner: the federal government.
Federal agencies own hundreds of historic buildings, including many in Maryland, and are struggling to maintain or find new uses for them. Budget cuts from Washington are making the problem even more acute, according to a General Accounting Office report.
The government's portfolio of aging properties includes obvious sites, such as Fort McHenry, but also office buildings that are still in use. Rarer are all-but-forgotten structures like the grist mill, located on the campus of the VA Medical Center in Perry Point.
"It's been standing here for almost 300 years," said Ed Litvin, chief of the facilities and engineering service for the Veterans Affairs Maryland Health Care System, which owns the building. "But it's always been a lower priority for our budget, so we keep deferring work year after year."
One third of the buildings owned by the General Services Administration, the agency that serves as the landlord for the government, were built before 1961, according to the GAO report. Of those, 479 are listed or are eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The GSA owns nine historic structures in Maryland, an agency spokesman said, including the U.S. Custom House in Baltimore and the nearby U.S. Appraisers Stores building, both on South Gay Street. That number doesn't include buildings owned by the National Park Service, the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies.
Older structures pose challenges for federal agencies, which are operating on ever-smaller maintenance budgets. Upkeep of historic properties is more expensive and modernizing them is costly — particularly if state preservation laws apply.
Selling the properties isn't easy, given the red tape often involved with government real estate deals. The Obama administration launched an effort in 2011 to dispose of about 14,000 excess properties, both old and modern. At least 10,000 of those buildings remain in the government's hands.
Federal officials at the GSA have identified $4.6 billion in repairs needed on the roughly 400,000 buildings the agency owns nationwide. But Congress has been authorizing less money for that work every year. The GSA received $280 million for repairs and alteration projects in 2012, down from $855 million in 2005.
And while it is easy for agencies to hold off on repairs, preservationists warn that delaying maintenance can prove costly in the long run.
"Deferring maintenance is a common approach in an atmosphere of budget austerity," John Fowler, executive director of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a federal agency that supports preservation, wrote in response to the GAO report. "As a result, the greatest challenge that many agencies confront is that buildings have not been maintained, not that they are 'historic.' "
While it has a new visitors center, Fort McHenry has been forced to reduce its maintenance staff to 10 from 15 over the past three years, according to the GAO. Those workers, who are employees of the National Park Service, are also responsible for upkeep of the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson.
Tina Orcutt, who has served as superintendent of the two sites since 2011, said some of those workers are still on the job — they're simply being paid from another part of the budget. But she said the two sites lost a maintenance mechanic recently and the park service does not have the money to hire a new one.
She declined to discuss the impact that loss might have on the sites.
"Everybody has to live within a budget," Orcutt said. "We have to make choices about what positions we can fill and which we can't fill."
The VA has been working for years on a plan to renovate the Perry Point mill for use as a training site for employees and, perhaps, a small museum for patients and visitors. The money would pay to install utilities — there are none now — and a bathroom.
But retrofitting the building is not a simple task. To meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the agency would have to install an elevator. The building also needs a new staircase. Altogether, it would cost about $2 million. There's no money budgeted to do it.
The upgrades would require penetrating original beams, so the Maryland Historical Trust is reviewing the plans. That review process has taken years and has required revisions to the design, Litvin said. Staff at the Maryland Historical Trust could not be reached for comment on the project. The Baltimore Sun submitted a records request to the trust, a state agency, seeking more information about its assessment.
Taxpayers wound up with the 4,000-square-foot mill when the federal government bought the surrounding land in 1917 to manufacture weapons for use in World War I. The weapons plant was in operation for only a few months before the war ended. The property and the mill that came with it were turned over the U.S. Public Health Service in 1919.
"It's probably in pretty good shape considering its age and the fact that it's not necessarily useful," said John McGrain, a historian and expert on Maryland mills, adding that the Perry Point mill is relatively small.
McGrain said there were fewer than 150 mills of historic interest standing in Maryland when he last counted — in 1976.
The VA has performed basic maintenance — fixing broken windows and replacing rotting floorboards — and has kept the structure stable, Litvin said. But he'd like to see the building brought back to usefulness.
"The investment to renovate is much less than the value that's in it," he said.
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