Canal HQ relocation becomes a ‘coup’ for Williamsport

WILLIAMSPORT — There were numerous trips back and forth to Annapolis and Washington, D.C.

Supporters had to wade through the federal bureaucracy, endure long waits for answers and meet with whomever they could to get some movement.

And although some got nervous about a key funding element for the project near the end, a plan to move the C&O Canal National Historical Park’s headquarters to Williamsport finally prevailed, with authorities announcing the construction of a multi-million-dollar facility.

The deal was sealed in September, when the Washington County Board of Commissioners approved a grant agreement for $1.25 million to acquire the former Miller Lumber Co. property on West Potomac Street for the headquarters — just steps away from one of the most popular national parks in the country.

Once the county acquires and demolishes the lumber facility, it will enter into a lease with the Maryland Economic Development Corp. (MEDCO), which will invest about $11.5 million to build the headquarters, officials have said.

The National Park Service has agreed to put $5 million toward the project and enter into a 30-year lease with MEDCO. The plan involves the relocation of about 75 canal employees to Williamsport.

The headquarters will be added to a growing visitor experience along the canal in Williamsport, including an ongoing $8.9 million reconstruction of the Conococheague Aqueduct. Lockhouse 44, about a half-mile downstream, and a corresponding lock were renovated about five years ago.

With the canal watered from the Cushwa Basin to the lock, the park service started offering boat rides to give visitors a better feel for life on the canal in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Once the aqueduct project is completed, boats can ride across the water-filled bridge, under a railroad lift bridge and through a working lock.

With the new park headquarters added to the list, officials are beaming.

“I think it’s a big coup for Williamsport,” said county Commissioners President Jeff Cline, a former Williamsport councilman.

Mayor Bill Green and others recalled how the beginnings of the project came during a crab feed at a Maryland Municipal League gathering about six years ago.

“It was just a conversation,” Green said.

According to Green, C&O Canal Superintendent Kevin Brandt said at the event that it made sense to move the headquarters to Williamsport instead of keeping it along Dual Highway in Hagerstown.

Former Mayor James G. McCleaf II also remembered the crab feed, and how Brandt said “wouldn’t it be cool” to have the headquarters at Williamsport.

“Yeah, what do we need to do to make that happen?” McCleaf recalled saying at the time.

Actually, the idea goes back further, McCleaf said.

After he was elected in 2005, McCleaf said, he met with then-state Sen. Don Munson and talked about the future of the canal at Williamsport. The talks included possibly moving the headquarters.

Munson helped local officials “navigate through Annapolis” and obtain mini-grants and state bond-bill funding for improvements on the canal, McCleaf said.

“He was the one that helped us with the vision. That goes way back,” he said.

Munson’s love for the town and the canal dates even further back.

Munson said he was just 3 years old when his father died and his mother was left to raise him and his brother on her own. Working at Fairchild Aircraft Co. at the time, she found a place to live in Williamsport, where Munson started grade school.

“From that time on, I had a soft place in my heart for Williamsport,” he said.

Munson, who spent 36 years in the state legislature, said he saw the canal as “a great economic resource” for the county. He credits McCleaf and Brandt for being strong advocates in the early stages for canal improvements, which progressed to the major investments for the aqueduct and headquarters projects.

“I am delighted that that’s taking place and that, in and of itself, will be helpful to bring lots of tourism to the Williamsport area,” Munson said. “I’m sure they’re going to have a big museum as part of that.”

Town Manager Donnie Stotelmyer said one of the big hangups in the headquarters relocation was getting the U.S. General Services Administration, which helps federal agencies acquire space, to approve the move.

The U.S. General Services Administration prefers to lease space, but the National Park Service found a way to build the headquarters through a “cooperative management agreement” that had been used before, Stotelmyer said.

McCleaf said he and Stotelmyer made numerous trips to Annapolis and Washington, D.C., to drum up support for the project from state and federal officials.

Stotlemyer said he would talk to Gov. Larry Hogan, “whenever he could catch up to him. I met with anyone who would listen to me about the project.”

McCleaf remembered a nail-biting moment involving the $1.25 million loan from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.

The town ended up deciding it did not want to accept the grant, he said. So the commissioners stepped in and accepted it.

“Thank God they did, or it was over,” McCleaf said of the relocation.

Cline said there seemed to be confusion over whether the money was a grant or a loan.

“Maybe it was overwhelming to them,” Cline said of the town.

Stotelmyer declined to comment about it.