Lewes officials discuss future of Army Reserve site

Cooperation created consensus to convey property to city for campus
January 10, 2023

A campaign that began about 18 months ago with the election of Khalil Saliba has recently borne fruit for the City of Lewes. 

Immediately after he was elected, Saliba said he reached out to Sen. Chris Coons’ office to inquire about the Army Reserve building on Savannah Road. Recently, the National Defense Authorization Act conveyed the building from the U.S. Army to the City of Lewes. The deputy mayor said added language in the NDAA is something lawmakers do for their constituents, but it’s also a testament to Lewes’ growth and a vote of confidence from Coons, Sen. Tom Carper and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester. 

Saliba, along with city staff and other members of mayor and city council, met with elected officials over the last few months to express their interest in the property. The U.S. Postal Service showed interest and would have reportedly had priority over Lewes without the NDAA. Lewes officials demonstrated the growth of the area and the responsibility required to utilize the property in the most efficient manner beneficial to residents and the general public.

“There is no space to add new staff in the city hall or Board of Public Works offices,” said City Manager Ann Marie Townshend.

She said all current office spaces are occupied. Consultants, in particular those in the information technology field, perform important functions for the city, but are not dedicated staff. Townshend said there may be a point when the city decides it wants those services in house and would need space to do so. 

IT is handled in house for the BPW and, according to BPW President Tom Panetta, space for servers has been maxed out. Panetta said office space is the most critical, but there also needs to be continued discussion about the the city’s Schley Avenue property. Plans for that parcel were put on hold until the fate of the Army Reserve building was revealed. 

“Carper, Blunt Rochester and Coons were really phenomenal through the whole process,” Panetta said. “They were very supportive.”

Panetta and BPW General Manager Austin Calaman said everything is in the early stages and they look forward to starting conversations with the city.

“We don’t have any more office space unless we convert the BPW conference room into offices,” Calaman said.

The Lewes Police Department has its own spatial issues.

“A couple of years ago, we had a space study done on the police station, and it concluded that we had outgrown the current space for that use. We made renovations to the police station in the last year that were largely cosmetic to get more longevity out of the station, but there is no room at all for growth,” Townshend said.

Police Chief Thomas Spell said he believes relocating the police station would benefit citizens, city employees and his own department.

“Our growing needs for continued professional policing in the coming decades would be met and even surpassed for the coming generations of police officers,” Spell said.

Townshend said there is also a need for space outside the facilities too, specifically for vehicle and equipment storage. Calaman echoed similar concerns and said the new vehicles they purchase are larger than previous models. He added that they are waiting for a contractor to raise the height of the Schley Avenue building so a new bucket truck can fit.

Saliba said the first action is an environmental review. An Army representative from Fort Meade who was on the tour with Lewes officials and Sen. Coons indicated the Army already had plans to clean up the site.

“We all kind of suspected that the building has asbestos in it,” Saliba said. “And for years there were a lot of Army trucks parked in the back, and there’s probably a pretty good chance a lot of them were leaking oil.”

Lewes officials believe the Army would pay for the study and cleanup, but that is not yet confirmed. Saliba said Lewes will likely pursue a bond, but that would need voter approval. With an election in May, Saliba said he believes there might not be enough time for a proper referendum. He suggested May 2024 or a vote in between the two municipal elections may offer a better timeline. 

“The public will absolutely be part of the process of planning a new municipal complex,” Townshend said.

She said she isn’t sure when public involvement would occur because a lot needs to happen before advancing into details of a plan. She said Lewes is in the process of completing a functional needs assessment, which reviews the current and future space needs of the city. Townshend said the public will have an opportunity to review the completed study when it is brought before mayor and city council. 

“This will be a multi-year process, and there will be engagement with the public throughout. In the near term, we are primarily determining what needs to be done to facilitate the transfer and work on that,” Townshend said.

The neighboring community, Drake Knoll, was referred to as a quiet residential neighborhood by Townshend when she said its proximity will be an important factor during the site design stage.

Officials are unclear about the fate of the existing building at the Army Reserve, but Townshend said she believes it would need at least major renovations and likely additions to meet the needs of the tenants. When the functional needs assessment is complete, Lewes will have a chance to take a close look at the building. 


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