On Tuesday, April 11 Sheila Bair (President of Washington College) and Chris Cerino (Mayor of Chestertown) joined in a public discussion concerning town/gown cooperation. The well-attended event was hosted by Washington College (WC) and moderated by Dave Wheelan, publisher of the Chestertown Spy. To me, the discussion was open, frank, and informative, with audience participation. It started with prepared statements of recent progress and accomplishments, of which there are many. Here are a few observations and opinions:
WC is entertaining possible arrangements for a hotel that might be developed on property it currently owns adjacent to the Armory, possibly including the Armory. Rehabbing the Armory as a student residence has also been examined. Though all of this is very preliminary, the Mayor is supportive, will help where appropriate, and believes a hotel would be an excellent addition to the local economy.
Chris pointed out that Sheila had been instrumental in securing the recently awarded $500,000 grant for the marina from the MD State legislature. These funds, plus others the Town has gotten, will allow the ongoing work at the marina to be continued to completion this coming winter season. This was cited as a major victory and an example of how the two entities can best work together.
In response to a Wheelan question regarding formalizing a relationship between WC and the Town, neither party felt a formal arrangement that involved joint board participation would be particularly useful. But establishing formal standing or ad hoc joint task forces, or the creation of a non-profit development corporation should only be considered if specific work or projects could be defined and agreed upon, and that these joint efforts did not overlap and confuse other ongoing initiatives. They both seemed to prefer the informal communications approach, and mutual support of efforts when possible to obtain support from third parties.
The need and benefit of a college presence in the downtown was recognized by both parties. The new WC waterfront campus development and the move of the Center for Environment and Society to Cross Street were highlighted as significant forthcoming changes. Having students in the downtown area is seen as very useful for improved relations, as demonstrated by the College’s SandBox experiment.
In response to an audience question about the use of PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) arrangements, Chris pointed out that this would be divisive to a good working relationship, and ultimately such a program would have to be voluntary on the part of WC. The College and the Town are facing regional demographic and economic challenges, and both Sheila and Chris feel that such an arrangement is not well suited for a small college and municipality. WC is focusing on reducing its tuition costs to make it more competitive and PILOT would be counterproductive. Sheila also noted that the college pays real estate taxes on its lands that are not used in its educational program. Chris closed by saying he has to pick battles he can win and this is not one of them.
Both Chris and Sheila didn’t deal directly with the question of rezoning the WC property at the intersection of Routes291/213 to be sold to commercial interests. Chris cited “spot zoning” complications as a backdrop to the general problem of zoning relief for WC. In my opinion this is where a joint task force could make some real progress by adjusting the zoning and the Comprehensive Plan using a modified Planned Unit Development process that is allowed by Chestertown’s Zoning Ordinance. This could be a win-win situation if we think outside of the box.
The impact of the public education system on economic development in Kent County was discussed. It was agreed that it obviously plays an important role in recruiting WC staff and affecting real estate values, though neither the Town nor the College has any direct control. There was considerable heartfelt discussion from the audience about the public school system not being as bad as its reputation, and its recent trend is in the right direction under its highly regarded new leadership. It was suggested that the old reputation is old news and not relevant to the current situation.
There was considerable discussion about the hospital and its future. Both Sheila and Chris feel it is important and necessary to keep fighting to keep in-patient beds available locally. It was agreed that WC and the citizens of the region have a real job on their hands and need to keep working on this.
The audience ended by making suggestions and comments about developing a joint marketing relationship between WC, the Town, and the public school system– perhaps by creating a marketing curriculum and internships for local high school students. The creation of “Broad Reach” a piece of public art to be placed in Wilmer Park honoring Alex Castro, was cited as an excellent model for public/private cooperation within the Town and College communities.
The meeting was upbeat and useful and may mark a positive change in perceptions.
Matthew W. Tobriner is a engineer by training and is President of Tobriner Consulting in Chestertown