Members of Kenton's town council plan to again meet with an expert watchmaker to discuss plans to establish a training program for disabled veterans within the town.
Former Baltimore city police officer and longtime horologist Sam Cannan, who now lives in Kitts Hummock, is co-founder and chairman of the board of Veterans Watchmaker Initiative Inc., a nonprofit group incorporated in 2013 in Delaware.
The group's sole purpose is to help military veterans and their families learn watchmaking and watch repair skills, Cannan told a town meeting on Dec. 2
The program provides scholarships for qualified veterans and once their training is finished, helps them find jobs in the field. It will be the only technical school in the United States set up expressly for disabled veterans.
During his two-hour presentation to Mayor Paul Caple, the town council and about 40 town residents, Cannan proposed turning over the former Kenton Elementary School property to the VWI, which would use the space to train disabled veterans.
The initiative would only use part of the building, allowing Kenton's town government to continue using the remainder for office space.
In return, VWI would help fund needed improvements to the 1920s-era building.
However, while most felt it was important for Kenton to help the veterans, there also was concern Kenton might lose control over a valuable town asset unless steps were taken to protect its interests.
Legislation could help
Members of the General Assembly have laid the groundwork for the watch maker's program with a bill now pending in the legislature.
Introduced in July 2013, Senate Bill 153 authorizes the town to transfer, but not sell, the property to VWI. The bill specifically states that if "use of the property becomes inconsistent with the purposes authorized herein" – specifically use by the VWI – the property automatically would revert back to the residents of Kenton.
The bill is sponsored by state Sen. Bruce Ennis, (D-Smyrna), and has 33 additional sponsors on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate. It is currently in committee, awaiting legislators' return in January.
Legislation enacted in 1975, which transferred the building from the Smyrna School District to the town, requires it be used for community business.
"That's what some of the confusion was," Caple said. "It will be deeded to his nonprofit organization and also used for municipal purposes."
"Actually, we'd just be lending it to him," he continued, adding that the council most likely will want to make sure if the town ever does regain the building, it will be free and clear of any debt.
"We want to make sure it does not get sold by his organization, and we're working now to make sure it is not encumbered by mortgages."
State Rep. W. Charles "Trey" Paradee III, who was at the Dec. 2 meeting, and is a cosponsor of SB 153, said he understands the concerns expressed by Kenton residents.
"I think a lot of townspeople are a little skeptical," he said. "They want to see things in writing and make sure they are on the up-and-up.
"They just want to make sure the property will definitely be used for the watch making school and that it won't be sold or developed."
Paradee said although the subject did not come up in public, some have told him privately they're still smarting from a 2010 incident where Kenton's former treasurer embezzled $200,000 by illegally selling the town's cell phone tower easements.
"A lot of people brought that up," he said. "They're saying, 'We got ripped off before and we don't want it to happen again.'
"My impression of Sam Cannan and all the folks involved is that they're all very good people and their intentions are pure. It's just a matter of convincing everyone in town."
The council is scheduled to again meet with Cannan on Jan. 6, Caple said.
"We have to make sure it is clear what the contracts will be with the town," he added. "I'm hoping at the January meeting all remaining questions will be answered."
Paradee thinks SB 153 can be amended to assuage Kentonites' worries.
"I just think they want to make sure the town is protected."
Cannan, who said he regularly attends Kenton town meetings to address any questions about the watchmaking initiative, wants to have complete transparency when dealing with the town.
"I absolutely understand their concerns," he said. "This is a monumental thing we're trying to put together and I want everything to be above board and without reproach."
"This is not about making a profit, it's about continuing the program" he added. "I will never accept a salary. For me to see these veterans, to know they have recovered and are going to get a job, that's all the pay I need."
Personally, Caple said he is comfortable with Cannan's proposal, but that he won't ask for a vote on the matter until later in 2014.
Any decision from the town most likely will wait until the General Assembly takes action on SB 153, he said.