Church: Deal ‘pulled apart’ by Montgomery County officials -- Gazette.Net


This story was updated at 7:10 p.m. Aug. 20, 2013.

For more than a year, representatives of the National Labor College have been trying to sell the 47-acre campus near the Capital Beltway along New Hampshire Avenue.

The college hopes to move to a smaller space in downtown Silver Spring. With more students taking online courses, it has lessened the need for physical classrooms.

In June, leaders of Reid Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church thought they had a fairly solid deal to buy the campus in partnership with the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County, an affordable housing group.

Reid Temple planned a new church building as well as affordable housing.

“We were really close,” said the Rev. Loxley O’Connor, director of business and financial affairs for the church. Reid Temple is one of the largest churches in the nation with more than 13,000 members in Silver Spring and Glenn Dale. “We were down to a short list of items that needed to be resolved.”

But church officials then were told by Labor College representatives that the housing commission had pulled out, he said. Reid Temple worked on a deal to buy the property by itself, but the church was told in late June that the college was putting the property back on the market, O’Connor said.

“We were disappointed,” O’Connor said. “We heard from several sources that the deal was pulled apart by a few Montgomery County Council members who opposed having a church take ownership.”

He said those sources came from both the commission and college, as well as other places, but he did not know of a specific council member who expressed opposition.

The college, which was founded by the AFL-CIO about four decades ago, had signed a letter of intent, which anticipated a formal contract to sell the campus to Reid Temple and the HOC would be completed in June. But “just as the negotiations over the terms of the contract were nearing completion,” commission officials decided to withdraw from the deal, said Lara L. Manzione, vice president for marketing and communications of the college.

The executive committee of college’s board of trustees “reviewed the matter and opted to return the property to market,” Manzione said. “The college subsequently signed on with real estate broker CBRE to undertake a new marketing campaign to sell the campus property.”

She said she was not in contact with any Montgomery council members and had “no idea what they think about the sale of the property.”

Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring, a former dean of the labor college, said Tuesday that she was asked by County Executive Isiah Leggett’s office to meet with representatives of the labor college and housing agency earlier this year. She did so and said she raised questions over whether a sale to Reid Temple and the county agency was the best use of the property, especially since funds from a quasi-public agency would be used, and if the land was owned by a church, it would be exempt from property taxes.

“All I did was raise questions,” Ervin said. “The HOC board voted to shut it down…. I don’t have the power or authority to shut down anything.”

Adam Fogel, chief of staff for County Council President Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring, said that Navarro has not been involved in the matter.

Patrick Lacefield, a spokesman for the county, said he did not have any information on the situation.

Still interested in campus

Reid Temple is still interested in the campus but wanted to get the matter of any political opposition in the open to clear it up, O’Connor said.

“We still want to complete the transaction without the interference of those who have their own political agenda,” he said.

The church is also evaluating whether to rebid on the property or pursue some similar properties, and has retained Scheer Partners to evaluate options, O’Connor said.

“We have seen a great expansion of our ministry and need a larger location,” he said.

The Labor College is aware that Reid Temple has expressed a continued interest in purchasing the property, Manzione said.

“Should they submit a formal bid to be the sole purchaser, we will afford it every consideration, just as we will to other bona fide offers to buy the property,” she said.

During a recent meeting, the Montgomery County Planning Board reviewed some proposed master plan guidelines for that area of Silver Spring. Reid Temple’s proposal would fit those guidelines well and provide an excellent economic redevelopment plan, O’Connor said.

“We believe we are uniquely positioned to fulfill the stated requirements contemplated in the latest Montgomery County Planning Board proposal,” he said.

Land valued at $45 million

The college land, which includes dorms, classrooms, offices and a conference center, was valued by the state Department of Assessments and Taxation in 2013 at about $45 million. Once owned by a Roman Catholic religious order, the Xaverian Brothers, the AFL-CIO purchased the property in 1971 and formally dedicated the George Meany Center for Labor Studies and began offering degree programs for union members in affiliation with Antioch College in 1974, according to its website.

The college later became an independent degree-granting institution and its name was changed to the George Meany Center for Labor Studies — the National Labor College. It has been accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education since 2004.

Enrollment at the college in fall 2012 was 618 students, with 76 graduates that year. It offers bachelor’s degrees in business administration, labor studies and union leadership, among others, and has been offering more online courses in recent years.

Since relisting the campus, some 34 entities have signed non-disclosure agreements allowing them to review property documents and the college has led tours of the campus for many prospective buyers, Manzione said.

Officials from Montgomery College and Georgetown University were among those who toured the campus last year.

A Montgomery College official could not be reached for comment.

Stacy Kerr, a spokeswoman for Georgetown, said the university is looking for its “next 100 acres” and is eyeing sites such as land in northwest Washington formerly occupied by the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which moved to Bethesda.

“We are still assessing what we need,” Kerr said. “That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t be open to having conversations [about the Labor College site]. But those would be very preliminary.”