The first time the Chestertown Spy reported on the future of the vacant John H. Newnam Armory was three months after the community newspaper began operating in June 2009. The essence of that article was that Chestertown’s then-mayor, Margo Bailey, was making it clear to the state of Maryland that the Town would not pay a dollar more than $500,000 for the property after state officials had calculated its market value as $2.4 million. Chestertown eventually took over the property and later transferred it to Washington College for under $400,000.
Since that news, the Spy has published approximately 150 articles, commentaries, or letters to the editor about the Armory’s future. They are articles and opinions about town/gown relations, aspirations about the Chester River waterfront, and visions of a town that finally has a flagship hotel it has so richly deserved and needed for more than 50 years.
But rarely do those those articles note the grim reality that any significant improvement to a blighted site such as the Armory, requires lots of money. Without capital investors, no town or college can achieve its goals without the cash to complete the project.
And so, while the community has dreamed big about the Armory’s future for the past ten years, only some have understood the pure complexity of fundraising for these extremely expensive projects. More importantly, many have underestimated the role of luck in such undertakings.
Nonetheless, it might be an accurate to note that this critically important ingredient called serendipity has finally seemed to arrive after so much wishful thinking. A serious hotel developer with an impeccable track record, a history of doing challenging projects, and a proven capacity to fundraise for them, fell in love with Chestertown and Washington College.
With the arrival of Jay Shah and his professional team and vast network, the concept for the property has turned very real for Chestertown over the last year. Shah and his company, Hersha Hospitality Trust, want to move forward with a plan for a moderately-sized hotel and conference center at the Armory site.
With the endorsement of Washington College and numerous community leaders, Shah and his team have been successful so far on the various approval processes required to begin fundraising. But the one remaining threshold issue has come down to seeking approval from the town’s Historic District Commission to tear down most of the existing Armory building.
After evaluating the opinion of experts in this kind of restoration, the Shah group has concluded that water damage and mold infestation have made the building unrecoverable. Any attempt to rescue the structure would result in a failed campaign to attract investors to the project.
In simple terms, if the Historic District Commission does not permit the demolition of the building, Jay Shah’s team would need to walk away from the project. And for many in the community, that would be really bad luck.
But for some in Chestertown, the passion to save the historical site overrides Shah’s plans to use the facade of the building as a way to honor its history. Over the last few months, advocates to save the Armory have provided testimony to the commission that the structure can be saved and argued for the Town to seek an independent opinion for a structural analysis.
So the stakes are very high.
To help our readers better understand the developer’s background, their proposed Armory plan, and the major issues related to the environmental hazards of the building, we invited Washington College president Mike Sosulski, Jay Shah, and his team colleague Keith Coe to participate in a Zoom interview on the Armory project.
Given the history and complexity of the project, it was the Spy’s choice to present our coverage in three parts. The first reviews the project’s history with President Sosulski and Jay Shah’s background with Chestertown, the second is on the anticipated financial impact including Keith Coe’s perspective; and, lastly, a specific discussion on the building’s environmental damage and associated risk.
Background and History
These video interviews range in length from 5 – 10 minute each.