College’s purchases of Chestertown properties is potentially a good thing

By Kennedy Thomason

Elm Staff Writer

Though Washington College was founded in 1782, the institution is still responsible for fostering a positive relationship with the local community.

While efforts are in place to accomplish this, there are lingering tensions concerning WC’s acquisition of properties in downtown Chestertown. The College’s plans for two sites in particular, the historic John H. Newnam Armory located on Cross Street and the “old Dixon Valve property” on High Street, are ruffling some feathers within the Chestertown community.

Ironically, the College’s endeavors revolve around using these properties to serve locals and WC students alike.

Built during the 1930s, the John H. Newnam Armory was home to World War II veterans, many of whom served in Normandy during D-Day. This history has instilled a preservationist attitude in locals when it comes to the Armory — understandably so, considering many have elder family members who served there. Unfortunately, surveys of the structure uncovered copious amounts of mold and other unsafe conditions such as asbestos and lead paint.

The College’s application to demolish the Armory due to these findings states that “remediation will be extraordinarily expensive and, per the attached report, has no assurance of success,” according to The Chestertown Spy.

Some citizens are critical of the plan to tear down the building. While residents’ nostalgia and hesitance to demolish a historic building are justifiable, allowing a decrepit facility to remain on prime Chestertown real estate in the name of sentimental value does not seem to be accomplishing much.

The second property on which Washington plans to demolish a building is historically noteworthy, as well. According to Kent County News, “the history and meaning of the site at 800 High Street are significant, especially for the nearby Upper Calvert neighborhood, a historically African American community.”

Representatives of WC understand the importance of acknowledging the rich history that Chestertown possesses. WC’s Director of Civic Engagement Dr. Pat Nugent, whose office is located in the Starr Center for the American Experience in the restored Customs House, recognizes the implications of the College taking over the site. Nugent told Kent County News that “this place has long been a diverse space for making, innovating, connecting, and building careers. We want to honor and do right by that history moving forward.”

Current proposals for the use of these properties include leasing out the land on which the Armory stands to investors to build a hotel with conference spaces and creating an “innovation hub” to bring together thinkers and creators inside one of the buildings on the High Street site. Both would be available for use by students and community members, with an aim for both groups to work together within these spaces.

Chestertown’s Mayor, David Foster, is especially supportive of the innovation hub, saying, “I believe this project will foster a culture of entrepreneurship, creativity, and social impact in our region,” according to Kent County News.

Even though the public has scrutinized WC for its persistence in demolishing rather than restoring the buildings, the College continues to seek collaborative efforts between the campus and community members as it moves forward with the projects.

Just this week, Associate Professor of Education Dr. Sara Clarke-De Reza sent out a mass email to WC students and staff to provide feedback via two focus group meetings and a forthcoming online survey to ensure the hub “meets the needs of the Washington College community.”

As far as the preservation of history, WC has gone to great lengths to celebrate Chestertown’s past in initiatives such as the Chesapeake Heartland Archive, which digitizes collections of photos, documents, and other media related to Chestertown and its residents. The Starr Center’s existence and upkeep is evidence that WC is not in the business of destroying history, but building it up whenever possible.

Buildings with extensive damage and toxic materials, such as the Armory, are simply unable to be renovated. While this damage is an unfortunate circumstance, I believe that WC will find new ways to pay respect to, document, preserve, and educate others on the backgrounds of these two properties.

This is a prime example of the ends justifying the means; instead of leaving historic landmarks to rot, the College is repurposing the land to support community education and growth, allowing the properties to remain impactful for generations to come.

Elm Archive Photo

Photo caption: The former Dixon Valve location is one of the local properties Washington College has shown interest in revitalizing.

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