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UMBC’s outgoing president, state leaders hail Spring Grove sale, with details still in works

CATONSVILLE — The capstone of Freeman Hrabowski’s long tenure as leader of University of Maryland, Baltimore County comes down to paperwork.

A week ago, the Board of Public Works, led by Gov. Larry Hogan, approved the sale of the 175-acre Spring Grove State Hospital property in Catonsville to UMBC for $1. The outgoing president of the university desired the annexation of the adjacent state hospital for three decades.

“He said he had been trying to get this done under five governors,” Hogan said at a Thursday event serving as a victory lap for Hrabowksi. “I said: Instead of a gold watch we’re going to get him this deal done.”

Built in 1797, Spring Grove is the second oldest in continuous operation in the country. The current facility houses roughly 377 in-patient beds, the bulk of which are used by adults who have been deemed by the courts to be incompetent to stand trial.

The aging facility and others are slated to be closed under a master facilities plan released last fall by the Maryland Department of Health.

“This is about education,” said Hrabowski, the ebullient longtime UMBC leader. This is about the future of higher education and the future of Maryland.”

By next year, the 500-acre campus will grow — technically — by more than third with the addition of the hospital property. The official sale and lease agreement is not expected to be completed for several months.

“It’s the start of a new opportunity for UMBC, and it’s an important step in the development of a plan that is centered on mental health and that works both for the university and the community,” said House Speaker Adrienne Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat and alumna of the university.

The legislature set aside $30 million to help pay for the costs of remediation and upgrades on the property.

“We know that the property will be a critical part of improving our mental health and criminal justice systems in the county,” she said.

Neighbors in Catonsville coexisted with the hospital for decades. Recently, some grew concerned about its possible future.

The decrepit hospital facility was ripe for private development. Less than a decade ago, some feared a mixed-use project called The Promenade would hasten that possibility.

Last fall, the master plan for state hospitals noted the facility’s overall poor condition. It is slated to close, perhaps in the next decade. Health Secretary Dennis Schrader called the master plan “an action plan.”

That plan will “transform health care delivery … and reduce costs across the state,” Hogan said.

For now, there is the promise of a plan not yet fully fleshed out. Schrader and others say aging facilities will give way to more modern regional centers and community-based options.

The union that represents hundreds of employees at Spring Grove and more at other facilities worry this is a move toward privatization and elimination of state jobs.

The union also charges that there are not adequate private spots for these patients. The backlog that already exists will be exacerbated as those deemed incompetent to stand trial will remain incarcerated rather than placed in treatment. It’s a situation that advocates and the courts say is a violation of the constitutional rights of those patients.

Jones vowed to protect state employees at the site.

“They’re doing some of the most difficult jobs in state government, and we’re going to make sure they are supported throughout the process,” she said.

No patients will be transferred in the near future. The deal to sell the property to the university for $1 won’t be complete for several months. After that, the health department will lease it back for $1 over the next decade with two additional five-year extensions.

There are no concrete plans for how the property will be used, Hrabowski and others have said in recent weeks. Those will be fleshed out next year in a process that will include community involvement under a new university president.

Hrabowski will retire at the end of the current academic year and will be replaced by Valerie Sheares Ashby, dean of Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences since 2015.

“This is better than a gold watch,” Hrabowski was overheard telling Hogan on Thursday.