There have been questions over the decision to remove the current Chestertown Armory, and those questions seem to be based on a misunderstanding of some of the issues at play regarding the site. Let me provide some background and state that it has never been our preference to pursue this course. In 2005 the 155th infantry regiment, which called the Armory home, was merged with the 105th leaving the facility without a tenant. This occurred during a time of consolidation in the military and as is the process, the Federal government offered the Armory building and property to Kent County and Chestertown. The building had sustained considerable damage during Hurricane Isabel in 2003, so taking on the property came with considerable costs and both the county, and the town passed on the opportunity.
Washington College obtained the property in 2012 as part of a pass-through agreement with the town of Chestertown that saw ownership transfer first to the town and then to the College. After using a portion of the land to build Semans-Griswold Environmental Hall—which houses the Center for the Environment and Society—and the new Hodson Boathouse, the College began to consider options for the Armory. The idea of a small hotel and conference center for Chestertown has been considered for quite some time, but as a non-profit institution, Washington College cannot operate a for-profit hotel and would therefore need to find investors willing to build and operate the hotel with the College leasing the property to that group. For various reasons, the project didn’t gain traction until the past few years. At that time, prospective investors provided positive feedback about a hotel in Chestertown and the potential of the historic Armory as a location and provided funding to explore the feasibility of the project.
After commissioning reports to explore the condition of the Armory and the associated work to make the structure viable, it was realized that the condition of the facility made renovation prohibitive. In response to this news, community members have noted that the lead and asbestos in the building can be addressed, and they are right—the lead and asbestos would be costly, but not impossible to remediate. Others have indicated that mold can also be remediated, and if what we were dealing with were ordinary mold that simply sat on surfaces that would surely be true.
However, the environmental report indicates three main areas of concern: the mold is not just on surfaces within the building, but it has penetrated the fabric of the building; in a renovation, much of the concrete block and brick would be left in place and represent an ongoing threat; as a result, full and permanent remediation cannot be guaranteed. The issues around the extent of the mold present major barriers for potential investors who see no upside to attempting to repurpose a building that will present ongoing health risks. As a result, removing the building and replacing it with new construction that will commemorate both the historic building and the contributions of the 155th regiment present the best-case scenario to make use of the property and to provide much needed hotel space for to the benefit of the College, town, and county.
Washington College takes its responsibility as a member of the Chestertown and Kent County communities seriously. Since taking ownership of the property in 2012, the college has pursued a number of plans to adaptively reuse or renovate the historic structure with the hope of preserving the Armory. Unfortunately, none of those plans turned out to be feasible. It should also be recognized that an independent group, not associated with the College, has spent the last 5 years trying to save the Armory with their own money. They have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring architects, engineers, consultants, lawyers, and builders to try and incorporate the Armory building into a useful structure. Their efforts too, were not successful. I understand the inclination to react negatively to the news about the plans for the Armory. It’s never a happy day when we must decide to demolish a historic building, but these decisions are never arrived at lightly and without fully examining every available option.
Mike Sosulski is president of Washington College