North Point Government Center

Baltimore County is seeking bids for the possible sale of the North Point Government Center. Residents are concerned about the closure of the center, and also plans to reorganize local schools. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / January 15, 2013)

On a recent weeknight evening at the North Point Government Center, four young women were singing the barbershop classic "Goody Goodbye" in the auditorium. Upstairs, boys tangled on wrestling mats as parents and coaches watched.

In the six decades since it was built, the center at Wise Avenue and Merritt Boulevard has become a gathering spot for Dundalk residents. Kids play soccer on the fields during spring, residents gather for fireworks in July, and theater buffs act in plays throughout the year in a community performing arts program.

But residents fear they soon will lose the center. Last month, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's administration put the center and its grounds up for bid. It's part of a plan to sell some county land for private development, including parcels in Towson and Randallstown.

"It's not just a building to most of us," said Emily Mast, 19, who sings with the Young Women in Harmony group. "If this building's taken away, we don't know where we're going to go."

Kamenetz's plan also drew fire in Towson, where county officials considered moving the local fire station to a community park. After an outcry from area residents, the county reversed course, picking a different location for the firehouse so the park could be saved.

In Dundalk, the county proposal includes a reorganization of schools in the area — including the closure of the county's smallest elementary, Eastwood Center Elementary Magnet Program — drawing anger from some parents.

"It seems like this is a done deal," said Ericka Sapp, whose third-grade daughter attends Eastwood, just more than a block from her home. "My concern all along has been the lack of notice."

The county executive says selling the center's site could raise money for local school upgrades, while making government operations more efficient.

"Change is difficult," Kamenetz said. "I recognize that. We're trying make improvements and save taxpayer dollars at the same time."

The county executive also insists that the plans are not final.

"This all depends upon receiving appropriate bids," he said. "If we don't think we are getting sufficient income to accomplish all our goals, then we're going to go back to the drawing board."

But many Dundalk residents are fighting the plan. They're posting to Facebook, holding community meetings and, last month, held a rally outside the center. Some community leaders say they were blindsided by the sale proposal, which the county announced in December. And they point to the area's many vacant shopping centers, questioning whether new development at the government center would be successful.

"We want transparency in government," said Debbie Staigerwald, director of The Sky Is the Limit, a performing arts program that uses the North Point center for productions that include people with disabilities. "We want to be part of the decision. And we're not going to just sit back and take it anymore."

Staigerwald, who helped form a coalition called Dundalk United to oppose the plan, said community organizations have many questions that have gone unanswered by county leaders. Her group has raised thousands of dollars to renovate the theater and buy new lights and curtains, she said.

"Where else are we going to go?" she said.

The county plan would have a domino effect on schools in the area. The police precinct now located at North Point would move into the Eastwood Elementary building, forcing students there to relocate.

Superintendent Dallas Dance has recommended closing Eastwood Elementary at the end of the school year, and the school board is set to vote on the closure in March. Under the school officials' plan, Eastwood, Norwood Elementary and Holabird Middle School would become one school located on two campuses, organized as a K-8 magnet program focused on science, technology, engineering and math.

School system officials say that plan would balance enrollment at each school and offer magnet programs to more Dundalk students. But parents have raised a number of concerns, saying they will lose a tight-knit atmosphere at Eastwood.

"We've not seen respect for the process or for the people," said Rich Foot, a parent of two girls at Eastwood Elementary. "If this event is the opening act of Baltimore County's new way of doing business and dealing with parents, then it raises serious questions."

Sapp, who is now considering sending her daughter to a Catholic school, said she worries about the county's plan to put young students with older ones. Under the school system's proposal, children from pre-kindergarten to third-grade would attend school at what is now Norwood Elementary, while fourth- through eight-graders would go to Holabird Middle.