Editorial: Washington College’s Letter to Chestertown


Late last week, Washington College Interim President Jay Griswold sent off a ten page letter to Chestertown’s mayor and town council outlining not only the 238 year-old school’s current strategic plan but also specific goals for expanding the college’s physical footprint on campus as well as along the Chester River waterfront. It is an extraordinary document in a number of ways.

In the first place, it is exceptionally transparent. The college has made very public their needs in student enrollment, faculty expansion, and campus infrastructure, and also relatively firm numbers of what those projects will cost to remain a sustainable and competitive institution.  It has also shared with the community its fundraising goals and progress to date well before making a public announcement to launch an unprecedented $200 million capital campaign, something very few colleges or universities have been willing to disclose.

The letter also asks in a very public way for specific assistance from the town. The college openly requests consideration for very specific zoning changes and the town’s comprehensive plan. And many of those recommendations, if implemented, would have serious and far-reaching consequences for all who live here.

Even before the debate starts on Washington College’s proposals, school leadership should be thanked by the community for providing such a comprehensive and useful summary of need and circumstances. Gratefully, there will be no backroom rumors here.

But if there was one fault in President Griswold’s message, it was that the letter did not clearly state the troubled waters Washington College faces. Perhaps not today nor tomorrow, but in the not too distant future, Chestertown’s liberal arts college, without a sustainable number of students, capital enhancements, and seriously needed campus maintenance, will indeed become, as former WC president Douglass Cater famously warned, a very endangered species.

While parent outrage of higher tuition costs for both public and private schools is well documented in the media, the less frequently reported reality is that a number of these institutions have simply ceased to exist as a result of remaining stagnant or lack of planning.

This can already be seen nationally. Schools that are the most vulnerable, those with no/low endowments or accreditation issues, have already started to disappear. And in time, marketplace forces like supply and demand and return on investment will place hundreds of other higher education institutions at serious risk of experiencing a similar fate.

To be clear, it is in Chestertown’s paramount interest to make sure Washington College is not one of those institutions. One can only shudder at the thought, and the devastating economic, cultural and intellectual consequences, of an anemic and faltering school on Washington Avenue.

Nonetheless, the college is asking for much in their letter. Their proposals regarding land use, as well as residential and commercial development, are not exercises in subtle tweaking. Collectively, they represent fundamental changes in policy that would have a lasting impact on Chestertown’s landscape.

It is also important to note that zoning regulations and the town’s comprehensive plan are purposely designed to resist modifications, even good ones, particularly if they are being sought by large institutions, for profit or nonprofit, now commonly referred to as “special interests.” National town planning history is filled with countless examples of those kinds of special interests manipulating local governments to make zoning changes that have ultimately lead to degraded communities. These protective roadblocks make good sense in this regard.

But these tools can also be used to create a constructive conversation about the future of the town and its college. It is hoped that will be the case for our town council, its planning commission, and Washington College itself, as they enter into serious discussions over next few months.

A healthy dialogue with the town and WC on the future of North Chestertown, Morgnac Road, the Chester River waterfront, Stepne Manor, and the downtown historic district, has been long overdue. With both Chestertown and Washington College both facing many years of serious and numerous economic threats, the time for a meaningful and long term collaboration is now at hand.


Spy Reconnaissance: Mid-Shore Community Foundation with President Buck Duncan


Despite the remarkably slow economic recovery that the Eastern Shore experienced this year, the Mid-Shore Community Foundation had a remarkably robust growth during the same period. In fact, the foundation’s gross assets hit the astonishing $50 million mark, making it the fourth largest foundation of its kind in the entire state of Maryland.

Part of that growth was surely due to the historic gains made by the stock market, but a good bit of the credit goes to the Mid-Shore’s board of trustees vision to invest more time and resources beyond Talbot County, where the foundation was created, and reach out to Kent, Queen Anne’s, Caroline and Dorchester counties to encourage donor advised funds and program support.

Leading that charge for the Mid-Shore has been the foundation’s president, and former Talbot Bank executive, Buck Duncan. In his annual interview with the Spy, Buck talks about the organization’s exceptional year, the growth of assets and a renewed commitment for all the Mid-Shore.

This video is approximately eight minutes in length

After Paris Comes Easton: Bill Viola at the Academy With Anke Van Wagenberg


Well before camcorders, flash cards, HD resolution, and a host of other components that make up our digital world these days, New York native Bill Viola decided to become a video artist.

That was in 1973, when video was still mostly used for commercial television and some instructional use. While film had been slowly embraced in contemporary art circles, Viola’s use of video was an extraordinarily rare and rather exotic medium in the 1970s. Equipment was expensive, image quality was inconsistent, and poor resolution analog television displays were the only option for displaying work.

And yet Viola, almost on his own, saw the profound impact video could have with art and began to master electronic, sound, and image technology to highlight fundamental human experiences such as birth, death and aspects of consciousness.

In her interview with the Spy this month, Anke Van Wagenberg talks about Viola’s methods and legacy than can be seen at the Academy Art Museum’s exhibition, “The Dreamers” over the next three months. She also talks about Viola’s growing following, including his very successful show at the Grand Palais museum in Paris earlier this year.

This video is approximately one minute in length

Queen Anne’s YMCA Project Dead… Again


Newly elected Queen Anne’s county commissioners quashed the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the county and YMCA of the Chesapeake during their first meeting as a new commission. The meeting was held Monday, December 9.

A relationship between YMCA and Queen Anne’s County has been sought for years, the MOU being the last version of an ongoing attempt to have a Y in Queen Anne’s County.

The commissioners stated that they were not against the YMCA per se, and that nullifying the MOU was “not an attack on the YMCA,” but that underwriting the enterprise did not best serve their tax-paying constituents. Instead, they proposed a sub-committee to approach the YMCA of the Chesapeake to seek a new arrangement.

The county has an eight million dollar surplus after several years of deficit. As late as May, 2014, the county had restored $4M in funding for the project in fiscal year 2015. A month earlier, in April, 2015, the funding had been removed from the budget by the commission.

Several residents stated the commonly held position that a YMCA is a crucial component to community health and offered positive impacts for economic development for the region.

A December 6, 2013 QA County website description of the MOU included this agreement description:

“According to the MOU, the county commits to expend up to $8 million for design and construction of the facility and the YMCA agrees to reimburse the county $4 million within seven years. The county, with input from the YMCA, will oversee design and construction of the facility, but once completed the YMCA will be solely responsible for maintenance and repairs of the facility. The YMCA will staff, manage and operate the facility. Although the county will own the building, the MOU establishes the agreement that the county will lease the facility to the YMCA for a period of 99 years at a cost of $1 per year.”

The following videos show QAC residents making their case for a continued effort to make the MOU work, along with the commissioner’s debate and subsequent voiding of the MOU while pledging to find an alternative way of bringing a YMCA to the county.

Appearing in this video are commissioners Steve Wilson, Paul Comfort, James Moran, Mark Anderson, and Robert Buckey.

Spy Chat: Downtown Chestertown Association with Kristen Owen


Like her famed real estate intuition, out-going Downtown Chestertown Association (D.C.A.) president and realtor Nancy Mcguire hit the bullseye with her recruitment of Chesapeake Bank’s Kristen Owen to succeed her last year. As if sent from the central casting office, Kristen combines an almost perfect profile of the new era of leadership the town is experiencing.

Kirsten, who grew up in Chestertown, comes to her volunteer position with ten years of banking experience, a young family, and a first-hand knowledge of the challenges on High Street. That’s a hard combination to beat when being asked to lead an organization dedicated to supporting the downtown merchants in a town of 5,00o.

In her interview with the Spy, Kristen talks candidly about downtown Chestertown and its various challenges, and equally frank about the future of DCA’s I-sign on Cross Street. But in the end, she also expresses as genuine conviction that Chestertown is finding a way to move forward in a very exciting fashion.

This video is five minutes in length

Spy Reconnaissance: Eastern Shore Food Hub with President Cleo Braver


The idea of a food hub has been an active one for over seven years for Eastern Shore Food Hub’s president Cleo Braver. A center for aggregating locally grown crops from local farms at competitive costs with larger producers in the Mid-Atlantic, it has always been kind of a no-brainer for her with the Delmarva with its abundance of agriculture.

And it has been that kind of long term commitment that continues to motivate Braver in the face of losing a few allies in the November election in her efforts to create a food hub center in Easton and training farm in Kent County. With now over 300 food hubs successfully operating throughout the country, Braver remains optimistic that as more residents of the Mid-Shore hear about the program, it will be embraced as an essential part of the farming community.

In her Spy interview, Cleo talks about the importance of re-creating a regionalization of produce, the general business model of a food hub, the primary elements of the Food Hub’s programs, and her hopes for moving forward with the town of Easton in 2015 to build the Hub’s center.

This video is ten minutes in length

SpyCam Moment: The $1 Million Business of GIS at Washington College


It is hard to imagine that any department of a higher education institution could actually also be a business, but one doesn’t look much further than Washington College’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Program at Washington College to see one in real time.

The GIS program, established in 2003 by John Seidel, the head of WC’s Center for Environment and Society, not only trains students in the technology and application of GIS mapping, it also has fifteen full-time professionals housed in an industrial park a few miles from campus. The net results of this horsepower generates over $1.5 million in gross revenue this past year.

We caught up with Stewart Bruce, GIS Program Coordinator (academic code word for COO) to highlight one example of the power of GIS. In this case, he chose the Maryland Crime Mapping and Analysis Program.  He also highlights what liberal arts students get out of a program like that in real life.  Surprisingly, Stu starts with the year 1782 to provide his answer.

This video is four minutes in length

Mid-Shore Lives: Moorhead Vermilye and Philanthropy


For reasons Moorhead Vermilye can’t truly explain, he became a very active civic leader in Talbot County as a very young man. Named as chair of the Easton Hospital board in his mid-thirties, Moorhead would find himself leading countless community causes, including the United Way and the formation of the Mid-Shore Community Foundation for the next several decades. As a result, the former head of the Talbot Bank has had a first row seat to the growth of philanthropy on the Eastern Shore over the last fifty years.

In the first in a series on Mid-Shore Lives, the Spy recently interviewed Moorhead to talk about philanthropy on the Shore and the genesis behind the founding of the Mid-Shore Community Foundation. He also reminisces about the small town nature of Eastern Shore business life, the growing social needs of the community, and the serious demands for more Mid-Shore private giving in the future.

This video is approximately eight minutes in length

Out and About (sort of): ESLC Conference and Farms Balancing Act by Howard Freedlander


An all-day conference organized by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC) devoted to the future of agriculture on the Eastern Shore provided an excellent perspective about an industry critically important to the economy of the Delmarva peninsula.

A plot-line running throughout the day’s panel discussions was the pervasive tension between farmers and environmental groups. Conference planners hoped to address the often acrimonious debate and encourage a respectful dialogue.

The debate is simply about the health of the Chesapeake Bay. More specifically, are farmers doing enough in their daily operations to minimize damage to the pollution of the Bay?

The message given by farmers and the secretaries of agriculture in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia was more nuanced than cut and dry: farmers, coping with government regulations, are taking actions to protect the Bay while trying to be profitable. Community and environmental groups seem dissatisfied with the progress they are making, according to farmers.

Photos by Edwin Remsberg
Another message underscored the presentations made on Nov. 20, 2014 at the Tidewater Inn in Easton: both the agricultural community and the environmental groups need to talk. Lester Gray, a Perdue Farms executive, said, “We have too much confrontation today. We are responsive to our customers, consumers and communities.” Use of chicken litter currently divides the poultry industry and environmental groups.

At the end of a long day listening to a plethora of experts, the three agriculture secretaries provided an exclamation point to the underlying theme of the superbly well-organized conference: the need for cooperative, rather than confrontational discussion.

Maryland’s Buddy Hance said that the state needs to improve non-pollution and eliminate the “blame game.” He called for publicizing farmers’ best management practices, such as the use of cover crops.

Virginia’s Todd Haymore called for a partnership between the farming community, environmental groups and agri-businesses. He pointed to the creation in Virginia of a strategic economic development plan that included the agricultural industry.

And Delaware’s Ed Kee spoke about developing a dialogue based on trust and trying to solve problems, stressing objective, rather than zealous conversations. He pointed to a new farm and food policy in Delaware, creating a “healthy dialogue” and a road map for cooperation.

The question after any educational, sometimes provocative conference is where do we go from here?

As I listened to agricultural industry representatives, I clearly could hear the frustration with the perception on the part of some environmental groups that farmers are not doing enough and sufficiently speedily to save the Bay, to improve its health, to control pollution.

Responsible environmental groups, frustrated by the agonizingly slow improvement in Bay pollution, blame developers and farmers for failing to use best management practices to control the infusion of nitrogen and phosphorous in the Bay.

ESLC knowingly tackled a sensitive subject.

In his introductory remarks, Rob Etgen, ESLC’s executive director, referred to the proverbial “elephant in the room”—the controversy and animosity often voiced by agricultural and environmental groups.

The conference did not resolve the conflict. That was too much to ask. It did, however, highlight the agriculture industry’s efforts, whether undertaken by a farmer or a major agri-business like Perdue, to be responsive to environmental concerns.

At a time in history when our conversation and disagreements are often characterized by stridency and personal attacks, I hope that the more than 200 attendees at ESLC’s 15th annual conference left feeling a bit more informed—and maybe even willing to work together.

I realize I may be overly optimistic.