Those opposed to Frederick County government’s bid for a $20 million property claim the county is rushing its acquisition and neglecting to consult the public.
County officials, however, said Tuesday they notified the public as soon as they could about plans to purchase the 26-acre site at 800 Oak St. off U.S. Route 15. Further, county leaders said, their chance to obtain the property, which includes a 209,000-square-foot facility currently being used for COVID-19 vaccination clinics, will pass if they hesitate.
If the county doesn’t finalize its offer by Oct. 15, the Miami-based private equity firm selling the property will move on to another bidder, the county’s chief administrative officer, Rick Harcum, said.
“Frederick County government can be so agile to move quickly on this opportunity,” Harcum said during a council meeting Tuesday. “If we delay, the opportunity will be lost just as quickly.”
The county, he added, hasn’t been sitting on information. Officials had to wait for the conclusion of a roughly three-month due diligence process in which engineering and environmental assessments are completed. In property acquisitions, the process normally involves just the buyer and the seller, Harcum said, and it isn’t a public process.
For the county to finalize the purchase, the County Council will need to vote at its Oct. 12 meeting to approve the necessary funding. After hearing public comment Tuesday, in which two constituents questioned why members of the public weren’t involved sooner, the council had the option to vote but chose to delay the decision.
The period for comment normally ends when the council concludes its meetings, though the public will be able to submit written testimony about the proposal until 5 p.m. Friday.
The council’s decision comes a day after four of five Frederick city aldermen emailed a letter to county officials asking the council to delay its vote. The letter surprised and confused county officials, who said they hadn’t previously heard opposition to the proposal from city officials.
The aldermen also asked for a joint city and county public meeting to discuss the future of the property, but as of Tuesday night, the council had no plans to meet with the aldermen who signed the letter before next Tuesday, Council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D) said.
City board signees included President Pro Tem Kelly Russell (D) and aldermen Derek Shackelford (D), Donna Kuzemchak (D) and Ben MacShane (D). Also lending her name to the letter was Katie Nash (D), the lead vote-getter in the city’s primary election for the Board of Aldermen.
“This proposed purchase took us all by surprise as the property had been listed for sale for about 12-18 months and this was the first time we had understood the county was interested in acquiring such a large tract of land within the city of Frederick,” the signees said in a copy of the letter obtained by the News-Post.
Mayor Michael O’Connor (D), who serves as the city’s executive officer to the legislative Board of Aldermen, also expressed support for the position the aldermen took in their letter. The mayor said he may have signed on if the board hadn’t been pressed for time to send it to the county.
The County Council first discussed the Oak Street proposal during its Sept. 28 meeting, one week after County Executive Jan Gardner (D) announced the county’s plans during a Sept. 21 press briefing.
Total costs, including preparing the roofing for solar panels, would bring the final price tag to $32 million. The county hopes to offset a chunk of the site’s $20 million property cost — which doesn’t include costs beyond acquiring the property — by consolidating operations and improving efficiency to bring its net cost to between $7 million and $8 million, Gardner said.
Purchasing the property would bring an influx of economic activity to businesses in the area adjacent to the property, including the Golden Mile, Gardner said. It would also allow county government the opportunity to relocate services that are running out of space, she added.
The facility could be used to centralize some government services by opening an operation center, Harcum said during the meeting. Doing so could expedite the construction of a library on the west side of the city and eliminate costs that would’ve arisen if a new building had to be constructed.
Capital projects dependent on the county purchasing land or erecting buildings would also move forward quicker and be less expensive by using the Oak Street facilities, according to county documents.
The 911 call center that facilitates calls from both residents in the city and other parts of the county is outgrowing its capacity, Harcum said. He added that relocating it to the Oak Street facility would avoid construction costs and benefit from the telephone infrastructure that remains from a previous company’s call center.
Councilman Phil Dacey (R) has been vocal in his opposition to the proposal, telling the News-Post on Monday that he felt the process was rushed. It also wasn’t clear to him that the county had been looking for real estate or had a need for the space, he said.
“We’re buying this thing on a whim, on a two-week’s notice,” Dacey said. “It has the potential to be a boondoggle.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct Councilman Phil Dacey's political affiliation. He is a Republican.