There is an important meeting coming up Thursday night, August 8th, at 7pm at City Hall and I need your help in understanding your opinions on the matter.
By way of background, the Mayor and Council are returning from spending some time off and lobbying state leaders at this summer’s Maryland Municipal League Conference. We came away with a clearer head about the need to discuss financing options for two big projects – (i) the streetscape revitalization of the 3300 block of Rhode Island Avenue, including a complete makeover of Memorial Park and Perry Street; and (ii) rehabilitating Potts Hall into a Council chambers/public meeting space on the second floor, and flex space on the first floor that could be leased out as retail or serve another public need.
Here are some additional details about both projects, my opinions on the matter, and then my ask.
For the 3300 block project, we have already submitted a grant application to the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development for $400,000 towards the redesign of Memorial Park and the block’s entire streetscape. The remaining parts of this project – the Perry Street renovation, splash play, and stormwater improvements – will cost more money, upwards of $800,000 in an initial cost estimate.
The good thing about the 3300 block project is it can be divvied up several ways to cut costs, while maintaining the general intent of revitalizing a key public space in our downtown. Either way you slice it, this project does what many in the urban design field have come to realize is so important for economic development – create a space for our community and visitors to hang out and take pride in, which increases the chance they patron our current and new businesses, making them sustainable in the long run and providing the city with a much needed diversified tax base. As we move to develop the 3200 block of Rhode Island Avenue into a mixed-use space with dense apartment living, it is important that we have a redesigned downtown waiting for people to hang out in and spend their money.
For Potts Hall, the initial cost estimate comes in at a much higher $4 million. That is a lot of money. As a point of reference, it is almost 50% of our annual budget, which is approaching the $8 million range, and is equal to our $4 million in reserves. Some of my colleagues are pushing for this revitalization, and I have always been, and continue to be, about supporting shared interests. If my colleagues can find a way for this project to be affordable – i.e., get enough state funding, while not tapping too much into reserves or financing too much debt – than I can see this project getting my support.
But I will still voice the concerns I’ve always had about Potts Hall. This is a project that costs 400% more than the 3300 block revitalization, and I believe the 3300 block will contribute more to our economic and communal health than the Potts Hall rehab. As a city building, Potts Hall will produce no tax revenue, with the only revenue potential resting with our ability to successfully lease out the first floor. On most nights, the upstairs will be empty after 6pm. Still, our city is growing and staff is running out of space, and having a space for city council meetings would allow staff to expand into the second floor of the current City Hall. Plus, it would beautify one of the biggest and most historic buildings in our downtown core. And, with the city set to make its final $250,000 annual debt payment on its outstanding debt, one could argue taking on a similar debt obligation going forward would not negatively impact the budget by simply keeping that line item flat year-over-year.
My wish is that we can find a way for us to combine both these projects in an appeal for state funding, as it would serve to beautify both sides of the circle, which would have an enormous impact on beautifying our downtown core.
So, if you’re around August 8th at 7pm, the Mayor and Council will be trying to figure out what sort of funding structure we could all live with for both projects, and then map out how to get funding from the state. You could most certainly voice your opinion there. And if you can’t make it (or just don’t enjoy glorious Wednesday night meetings at 7pm), then please email me your thoughts.