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June 22, 2006

Outrage As A Good Thing

John W. Ashbury

Once again our city fathers and mothers have fallen into a bottomless pit, guided there by a group of "do-gooder" bureaucrats who found another way to spend taxpayers' money on a project that makes little or no sense - at least of the common variety.

During the last City of Frederick administration, the staff presented a proposal to the mayor and Board of Alderman calling for block grant funds to be spent to restore and expand an historic building at 527 North Market Street, two doors south of the Juniors firehouse - to the tune of $525,000.

One former alderman recalled that the plan was to turn the building into "affordable" housing and sell it at a loss. How's that for a common sense, well-operated business adventure?

A little history here, if you don't mind. The Juniors Fire Company originally purchased the property with the intention of tearing the building down to provide additional parking for its volunteers.

But when representatives went to the city to get a demolition permit, it was discovered that the Historic District Commission (HDC), now the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), had to approve the destruction of this building because it is in the city's Historic District.

At some point along the line, the HDC denied the demolition permit because it was an "old log cabin," and that made it of historic value to the city.

So, eventually, the city purchased the property from Juniors for $32,000. This means that had the city proceeded with plans to restore and expand the property, it would have $557,000 in the building. There is no way they could turn around and sell it for anything even close to that amount, even after the skyrocketing real estate market of the past few years.

Well, it seems that the plans for the restoration had to come before the HPC one more time. The chink in the armor this time was Alderman David "Kip" Koontz, now the liaison to the HPC.

Usually elected officials in these liaison positions sit back, observe, and seldom comment unless called upon to do so. Anyone who knows Mr. Koontz is aware that he is not a shrinking violet.

His initial response was something along the line of "we are doing what?"

He was immediately annoyed that the city, even a long line of bureaucrats, would consider spending this amount of money to create a single "affordable housing" unit.

He asked if it would be a violation of the block grant regulations to instead create a museum with the funds. The answer he received was "No, it would not."

So, the direction is changing. The design will have to be a little different, with a lot of "extra" things done - like an extensive security and climate control system to protect the artifacts placed there.

As many readers will recall, William O. Lee, Jr., the late principal of West Frederick Middle School and two term alderman of The City of Frederick, spent a lifetime collecting items reflecting the history of the black community in Frederick. His wife Cynthia, who shared his interest, passion and concern for the history of Frederick, recently placed "Sonny's" vast collection into the capable hands of the Historical Society of Frederick County.

But, Alderman Lee's dream was to have a museum in Frederick dedicated to local African American culture and history.

When plans to demolish a duplex on Ice Street came to light, Mr. Lee launched a campaign to save the building because it was in one side of the structure that the Reverend Ignatius Snowden conducted a "library" for black men in his home. Mr. Lee's grandfather, Clifford Holland, founded the "library," but his home wasn't suitable and Reverend Snowden's was.

The Ice Street buildings were demolished. However, the Kiwanis Club of Frederick did place a plaque on the new structure to commemorate the "library."

Racing back to the present, it seems so appropriate to use this building on North Market Street to house and display Bill and Cynthia Lee's collection of Frederick's black history artifacts. Mr. Lee's book - Bill Lee Remembers, published by Diversion Publications in 2003 - only scratched the surface of the available data in his collection.

There are others in our community who have items relative to this chapter of Frederick's history, but they are reluctant to part with them because they treasure them so much. But if Frederick has a permanent home dedicated to their preservation, perhaps the missing pieces of an illustrious history can be gathered together.

Our current city fathers and mothers now seem to be willing to accept Mr. Koontz's proposal to turn this historic building - historic only in the fact that part of it was originally a log cabin - into a museum. Whether or not it will become the Lee Memorial Museum of Frederick's Black History is a story yet to be told.

Every citizen of Frederick should be proud of this part of their history. They should get behind this effort and see to it that Mr. Lee and his wife are properly recognized for their service to history and to this community.

And special thanks go out to "Kip" Koontz for being appalled at what appeared to him to be a waste of taxpayers' money. Outrage is sometimes a good thing.

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