By David Noss
ST. MARY'S CITY, Md. (Nov. 12, 2008) - The next battle over the future landscape of historic St. Mary's City is heating up. The St. Mary's College of Maryland—the principal tenant of the area—is moving ahead with plans to construct two new buildings, a $1.49
million footbridge over Route 5, and improve the shoreline in front of the new River Center, to include a new pier. The construction is being opposed by a local group called Citizens for the Preservation of Historic St. Mary's City (CPHSMC) on the grounds that the changes will damage the historical ambiance of the area.
CPHSMC was a vocal opponent of the recently constructed River Center, which saw two large buildings constructed on the river shoreline where CPHSMC members believe the original settlers must have logically landed. There is no known scientific or archeological evidence which establishes the exact location of the initial landing, acknowledge CPHSMC members.
CPHSCM held a public meeting at the Ridge Fire House on Wed, Oct. 22, to discuss the upcoming, SMCM-sponsored projects. Approximately 100 people attended the 2-1/2 hour meeting. Sen. Roy Dyson (D-29th) was the only invited guest. Dyson served as the primary advocate for the group in the lost battle to have the River Center buildings moved to a less offensive location.
During the meeting, speakers were careful to distinguish their concerns about the college's impact on the historical value of the area in the furtherance of new capital projects from the value and significance of the college as an institution of higher learning. The group and Dyson had come under previous criticism for "bashing" the college during their previous encounter.
After the public divide caused by the River Center controversy, the board of trustees for the college established the St. Mary's College and Historic St. Mary's City Capital Design Advisory committee (CDA). CDA was designed to bring the community into the planning process for future capital projects. One of the key complaints raised by opponents of the River Center project was that the public was not notified about the college's intent and subsequently not given an opportunity to provide input.
The formation of the CDA was approved at the Board's Dec. 3, 2007 meeting where they voted unanimously not to alter their plans to complete the River Center in spite of the public's opposition.
At a meeting of the Capital Design Advisory Committee on Dec. 2, 2007, Chip Jackson, Associate V.P. for Facilities, noted that in years prior the college had tried working with the public on proposed capital projects, but public interest had eventually waned and the process was dropped.
The CDA will meet on Thursday, Nov. 13, at 7:30 p.m. in Cole Cinema in the SMCM Campus Center. The meeting agenda calls for an overview of historic campus and the Maryland Heritage Project, as well as of the environmental and historical stewardship programs. There will also be status reports on the Shoreline Improvement Project, Anne Arundel Hall, the Maryland Heritage Interpretive Center, and the footbridge over Route 5. The former two buildings are part of the Maryland Heritage Project. The footbridge is being constructed for student safety issues and the $1.49 Million in funding is being provided by a federal grant through the Dept. of Transportation, according to college documents.
Membership of the CDA includes representatives from established community organizations, the college, and the city. These include the following: Chip Jackson, SMCM co-chair; Regina Faden, HSMC co-chair; James Hardin, Trinity Parish representative; Gary Williams, St. Mary's River Watershed Association representative; Ingrid Swann, St. Mary's County Arts Council representative; Raymond Dodson, St. Mary's Chamber of Commerce representative; Pete Himmelheber, St. Mary's County Historical Society representative; Julia King, faculty representative; Mac McClintock, college staff representative; and Sunny Schnitzer, student representative.
Brian Seibert, a key member of CPHSCM, was a member of the CDA until he resigned in July. Currently, no member of CPHSCM holds a seat on the committee.
Members of CPHSCM share a distrust of the college and the CDA. At the Oct. 22 public meeting, several people stated that they believed SMCM had no real desire to hear their complaints and the CDA was there merely to appease the public.
The group's distrust was further demonstrated by their lack of a formal invitation to the college to attend the meeting in order to respond to the public's concerns.
Marc Apter, vice president for public relations and marketing at SMCM, learned of the meeting and signed up to speak before the group. After noting the lack of a formal invitation in his opening remarks, he was interrupted by CPHSCM member Don Beck who stated that everyone had the opportunity to attend the meeting.
"I take offense to that," said Beck. "This was a public meeting. You had the opportunity."
"In terms of organizing this event...it's about the college and the community," said Apter. "The college should have an opportunity to prepare, bring people, and make presentations of experts who know about this particular issue."
Apter continued by discussing the upcoming CDA committee meeting and its role in addressing the concerns of the community.
"The reason you haven't seen any plans for the footbridge is because there aren't any yet," said Apter. "It hasn't been designed. And you are here in the beginning process where people can have input into what is going to go there. It is not fait accomplis."
Apter also addressed the lessons learned from the River Center controversy which caused a public relations black eye for the college.
"A year and a half ago when the Rowing Center went up, the college vowed that it wasn't going to let itself be in a position in the future where it was surprised as well. It didn't realize there was going to be that kind of community outrage, and there was," said Apter. "So the college, one, created this CDA committee and, two, ... the board of trustees created the community relations committee which is designed to work in concert with the CDA committee. And I quote, 'The community relations committee objective is to ensure that the community's needs are part of the college's overall decision making process.'"
Perhaps the irony of the conflict between the college and the citizens who are concerned about the historic preservation of the areas lies in the history of the college itself. The college, in its original form, was first established by Maryland legislators in 1840 as a monument to Maryland's first capital, according to Apter. At the time, there was little at St. Mary's City beyond empty fields. St. Mary's City was not recognized as a National Historic Landmark until 1969. Interest in the historical city, resulting in historical research and archaeological excavations, did not begin until the early 20th century, according to the Historic St. Mary's City website.
Free transportation by van to and from the meeting, within a 20-minute radius of St. Mary's City, may be arranged by calling 240-895-2200.
Citizens for the Preservation of Historic St. Mary's City (CPHSMC)
The Maryland Heritage Project
SMCM Capital Design Advisory committee
Pedestrian Footbridge FAQ
Shoreline Improvement Program FAQ