No one makes whiskey any longer on Sollers Point Road in Dundalk, where the old distillery stands empty, the weeds poke through the paving and graffiti marks the brick walls.
Joseph E. Seagram & Sons closed its bottling plant there in the late 1980s, and it's been empty for years, considered an eyesore by many neighbors and the scene of several recent fires. The latest owner of these desolate 14.5 acres is planning a redevelopment, and one of his ideas involves moving county-owned offices there, freeing up a nearby property for "big box" stores at one of the biggest crossroads in Dundalk.
Some in town are excited about the prospect of growth at the current site of the North Point Government Center at Merritt Boulevard and Wise Avenue, which they believe could boost the local economy. But others say the area can't support more stores, and have concerns about whether the developer, John Vontran, of Perry Hall has the financial stability to handle such a project. The property is at the center of a bankruptcy case.
"I find his proposal ludicrous and his audacity leaves my mouth hanging open," Rose Mary Tallon of Dundalk wrote in a letter to the county Planning Board.
Vontran said the most likely future for the old plant is a project that combines office space and senior housing, but he would like to work with the county on a plan that also involves the North Point site. Vontran has asked for permission to raze the distillery buildings, which he bought in 2008, and to have the zoning on the site changed to allow homes and office buildings.
Since January, he said he's conducted meetings with representatives of about a dozen community groups to talk about the North Point/Sollers Point land "swap," as some neighbors call it. He said "there's a lot of support for it," but added that he hasn't formally proposed anything to the county.
Though Vontran and the county have not held formal discussions about North Point, the Dundalk Renaissance Corp. is pushing for redevelopment. The nonprofit devoted to revitalizing the area has sent letters urging the county to consider the commercial potential of the North Point site, which is larger than other commercial sites on Merritt Boulevard and could accommodate "big box retailers."
Without mentioning Vontran, the letter — sent to departments of planning and economic development and to County Councilman John Olszewski Sr. — said, "We are aware of a proposal by a developer to acquire the Government Center."
Though the group has not taken a position on Vontran's zoning request, the letter says that moving offices out of North Point "might spark additional investment in the area, including the shopping center across the street."
Many residents, however, have raised objections before the county Planning Board, which is considering the requested zoning change at Sollers Point Road.
"We have a lot of empty stores sitting around, we don't need another one," Jane Browneller of Dundalk, one of several people who spoke against the zoning change request at a hearing held by the county Planning Board, said in March. She also said she did not want the North Point police precinct moved to Sollers Point Road.
Patricia Paul of Dundalk told Planning Board members that there should be more study of the potential impact on traffic and the environment before anything is done with the government center. She objected to the prospect of developing land now used for youth league ballfields.
In a two-page letter to the board, Tallon said the proposed re-zoning for office use would not be consistent with the surrounding residential area. She also questioned whether Vontran is the right person to pursue the North Point/Sollers Point project, given his limited experience as a developer and recent history of bankruptcy.
Vontran, who used to be in the video poker machine business, said he started one small project in Canton that never got off the ground, and his only experience as a developer is the Yorkway project in Dundalk, where 38 of 66 planned homes have either been built or sold. He said he's working with more experienced and better financed development partners, but would not name them.
Vontran filed for bankruptcy in 2009, a case that concluded last year. According to documents filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Vontran, sought bankruptcy protection "because he and his wife were involved with a number of failing businesses and one operating business."
Then in 2010, the company that owns the Seagram's plant filed for bankruptcy, a case he said was being "resolved as we speak." Vontran said he is confident he'll retain ownership of the property, but the bankruptcy trustee said lenders have been granted permission to foreclose.
Neighbors also said he's taken poor care of his property at Sollers Point Road.
In an interview, Dennis McCartney of Dundalk called Vontran "an abysmal steward of the property," mentioning specifically the broken chain-link fence and the soil dumped on the grounds from excavations at the Yorkway site.
Vontran said he had permits to use the Sollers Point property for the soil from the Yorkway project. He said it's been difficult to maintain the property and keep trespassers out, and that's why he's eager to redevelop the land.
Olszewski, an Edgemere Democrat who has the authority to approve or deny the zoning request, said he hasn't taken a position on the North Point/Sollers Point proposal. He said he wanted to see how residents respond to the idea, and he urged Vontran months ago to test the waters.
"I said, 'It doesn't make sense unless you gauge community support,' " Olszewski said.
The county has no immediate plans to do anything with the government center, which opened in 1953, said spokeswoman Ellen Kobler. Most of the building is used as a police precinct and for Recreation and Parks, including a gym, auditorium and athletic fields next to it.
Vontran said it is time to realize the potential of the Sollers Point property, whether he can make a deal with the county for the government center site or not.
"That was part of our original idea to do that," said Vontran. "We can't wait for the county. … It could take the county forever."