At least two members of the Board of Charles County Commissioners were surprised to learn that the county has been awarded a bond by the Maryland General Assembly to fund a project that the county has repeatedly declined to proceed with.
The $100,000 bond for the planning of a multipurpose civic center in Waldorf was one of three bond requests submitted by Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) during this year’s truncated Maryland General Assembly session. Ellis’ other two requests — $200,000 for a homeless services center operated by LifeStyles of Maryland and $60,000 for infrastructure improvements to Lions Camp Merrick in Nanjemoy — were also approved by the General Assembly.
During Tuesday’s recap of legislative session highlights presented by the county’s lobbying firm, Greenwill Consulting Group, District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) interjected to request more details about the project for which the funds would be used, saying he was unfamiliar with it.
“It hasn’t come through the board of commissioners,” Bowling said. “That’s almost a third of the money we got from the state, to a project we don’t even know about.”
Ellis told Bowling that the proposed development was “part of the entire light rail economic development plan,” adding that he had communicated his intention to submit the bond initiative to the county, though he was unsure whether individual commissioners were in that particular loop. He added that it was possible that in the press of business resulting the early dismissal of the session in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a step may have been inadvertently been missed.
“My job is to bring money back to Charles County,” Ellis said. “That’s my major goal, to … look for any kind of money to jumpstart projects in Charles County to really advance the County economically.”
Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) added that the civic center project had been in the works for several years as part of the county’s ongoing Waldorf Urban Redevelopment Corridor initiative.
“It’s not outside the scope of Charles County planning, this idea of some type of center for … development within the urban redevelopment corridor,” Collins said. “That’s what jump-starts, essentially, redevelopment projects.”
District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) said that the lack of communication to the commissioners about the funding suggested a breakdown in communications somewhere in the process.
Stewart said that though state senators and delegates aren’t required to notify county officials if they decide to introduce bond proposals — as was pointed out to the commissioners by Greenwill’s president and CEO, Ivan Lanier — it would be “common courtesy” to do so, and the lack of communications “just speaks to not a good process.”
“Yes, this would be a fantastic amenity for Charles County,” Stewart said. “With all due respect, Senator Ellis, this is in my district and I didn’t even get notification or have a conversation about what conversations I had with the state for the past five years about this center. And I could have shared with you directly about the … specific pushback and the concerns that I had received from the state.”
“I understand that you have a package and it goes out [via] email and then we have staff that’s on the call,” Stewart said to Lanier. “I’m sure Commissioner Collins is on the call, but my point is something that has such a large impact on the community and on … budgeting should not have been just included into a package. It should have been a larger conversation. I have a lot of information background information I could have shared, but not once did you, someone from your office, or Senator Ellis, reach out to me to have a conversation.”
Ellis apologized for the communications breakdown and said he would make a point of reaching out to commissioners individually in the future.
Cost estimates for acquiring property and constructing a 76,000-square-foot multipurpose civic center to be located somewhere in Waldorf had been included in the county’s capital improvement program for several years, but the county does not appear to have actively funded it. The project is not even mentioned in the most recent CIP, which no longer lists unfunded projects.
The original proposal in the CIP included renovations to the Old Waldorf School along with the construction of a multistory, 600-space parking garage. The county’s Economic Development Department had hoped to attract private sector funds to supplement the county’s contribution. The Greater Waldorf Jaycees Community Center at the intersection of U.S. 301 and Leonardtown Road, a likely site for such a development, currently serves many of those functions in the community.
Light-rail advocate and former District 4 commissioner Gary V. Hodge spoke in favor of the bond bill before the Maryland Senate Capital Budget Committee in early March, saying that there has long been a need for a modern civic center facility in Waldorf, dating back at least to a concept plan drafted in 2013.
Hodge said that a 2015 study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority concluded that the region could support a 35,000-square-foot facility capable of seating 3,750 people.
“This $100,000 grant, through this bond bill, would provide the initial funding to begin the planning and design process for that facility, which is a badly needed in the region and would also contribute to the transit oriented development plans for downtown Waldorf,” Hodge told the subcommittee.
It is not clear whether the county will proceed with the project, given that it is neither included in the CIP’s list of active projects nor has it been recommended for funding by either the county commissioners or the planning commission. Typically, state bonds are awarded with the expectation that the local jurisdiction will match the state’s contribution with its own money, in-kind gifts, or the donation of real property.
According to state statute, the county has two years to certify matching funds or enter into a grant agreement with the state, and seven years to encumber and expend the granted bond funds. The commissioners did not discuss the project’s timeline during Tuesday’s virtual open session.
A “Bond Initiative Fact Sheet” — which is required by the state Department of Legislative Services and posted on the General Assembly website — does not appear to be available for the Waldorf multipurpose civic center project, preventing the identification of proposed funding sources, any special provisions for the project, or a breakdown of how the funds would be allocated and to whom.
TLR is attempting to track down the missing fact sheet and will post a follow-up on the outcome.
illustration: Arkyan / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) (color modified and cropped)