St. Mary's County commissioners were surprised this week by the latest news from the state: Willard Hackerman, a Baltimore construction company president, wants to contribute $1 million to help the county buy 150 to 200 acres of state land for school sites.
Commissioners said that could ensure a location for a complex of schools, perhaps with a science and technology theme. That's what interested Hackerman in this specific donation, said commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large).
"I think the citizens of St. Mary's are potentially big winners here," McKay said.
It's the latest twist in a proposal that has gone through political corkscrews. State officials first discussed negotiations with an anonymous "benefactor" to buy 836 acres of conservation land for the same price the state paid for it nearly a year ago and donate some of it for schools. That could have brought Hackerman substantial tax benefits, and some legislators questioned how the state could ensure the land would be preserved.
Last Thursday, Hackerman wrote the Department of General Services, withdrawing his proposal to buy the entire parcel, offering to contribute $1 million to the county for schools and adding, "the state will pledge that the balance of the land will forever be preserved."
Hackerman did not return a call to his office seeking comment Tuesday.
"As a person who cannot write a check for a million dollars, I was surprised," said Secretary of General Services Boyd K. Rutherford. "I thought it was extremely generous, extremely gracious. It's consistent with his philanthropy." Some environmentalists have criticized the idea for building on the woodlands near the St. Mary's River.
Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's) said he is still a bit skeptical; if the gift came without strings attached, it would be a good thing for the county. But the gesture "isn't going to offset this terrible taste everyone has of wheeling and dealing that must have gone on for quite some time."
Commissioners were eager to hear more. They've been trying to find school sites for a long time, and they will have trouble paying for buildings if they have to buy lots of land.
"It's certainly something to look at," said Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown).
"I want to know more," said Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills), echoing Mattingly. "I want to know if there are some strings attached to the $1 million and what the citizens of Indian Bridge Road area and citizens of the Leonardtown school district think."
The commissioners have received lots of letters and a few calls from people opposed to schools and development near Indian Bridge Road, Mattingly said. He'd like to know whether they could use the money for schools at another site.
"Certainly we couldn't get a piece of land that size anywhere else" for an affordable price, he said.
McKay said school officials had floated the idea of as many as seven buildings on the site. The most immediate need there would be for a middle and high school.
"Are we ready to fund seven buildings?" McKay said. "No. But what we have failed to do in the past 20 years is plan for new school locations. This is a great step."
Since the state paid less than $2.5 million for the entire 836 acres less than a year ago, Rutherford said he was confident that under the latest proposal St. Mary's would have money left over after buying 150-200 acres.