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CUMBERLAND — City officials are exploring two potential economic opportunities with one being a new proposal that would utilize the former East Side School site.

One idea, first introduced in 2017, is a proposed autonomous vehicle testing center in Western Maryland. With support from the state, that idea is still being explored as officials study its feasibility.

However, a new proposal under consideration involves the 3.5-acre tract on Reynolds Street that is the site of the former elementary school.

Mayor Ray Morriss, members of the City Council, and Jeff Rhodes, city administrator, met in a closed session on Tuesday with officials from the Cumberland Economic Development Corp. to discuss the proposal for the property.

In a Times-News interview prior to the meeting, Rhodes said information on the proposal could not be made public yet. He said any release of details would be "premature."

East Side School was constructed in 1921 and closed during school consolidation in 1984. A plan to purchase the former elementary school and demolish the property was approved by City Council in 2014. The city subsequently purchased the property for $300,000 from the Potomac Economic Development and Housing Corp.

City officials were awarded $500,000 grant from Maryland’s Strategic Demolition and Smart Growth Impact Fund to raze the school, which took place in 2016.

In a public meeting prior to the closed session, the mayor and City Council received a presentation from Paul Kelly, executive director, and Matt Miller, economic development specialist — both of the CEDC — on their Business Retention and Expansion Program. During the presentation, an update was given on the proposed autonomous vehicle testing center.

Miller said the idea came from the Governor's Autonomous Technology Feasibility Study compiled in 2017. 

"It is definitely something that the governor (Larry Hogan) is interested in and wants to push it forward if possible," said Miller, who is on the work group exploring the idea.

According to officials, the testing facility would need considerable space — roughly 500 acres — and is expected to cost between $30 million and $35 million.

Two of the primary locations under consideration for the proposed facility have been the Greater Cumberland Regional Airport and land near Frostburg State University.

"The possible locations were bifurcated," said Kelly. "The location of the research (portion) for autonomous vehicles being at or near Frostburg State. But, there is still interest in locating some portion of it at the airport; everything is in play and nothing is favored."

Kelly said roundtables have been conducted with leaders in education and business in Western Maryland to examine the idea.

"We've had repeated visits with a major manufacturer (related to the industry) located relatively to close to us ... but we will leave the name out," said Kelly.

Miller said the work group, which includes state-level officials, met last week.

"What we are trying to find out ... what type of facility would best foster what they are trying to test," said Miller, "not only from an autonomous standpoint but in general.

"What we are hearing from the industry is that they still need facilities to test trucks. What happens with one tractor-trailer, or multiple trucks operating two or three behind that are operating autonomously off that one driver. They need a place to test things like that. It is interesting stuff.

"Gradient is needed. They want to test on a variety of grades. They also at these sites produce fog, and snow, and icy conditions. That is something we produce naturally here. A more mountainous tract of land might be beneficial.

"But we are discussing the next steps, how the facility should proceed ... what the partnerships would look like. There is still a lot of it that will be need to be worked out."

Follow staff writer Greg Larry on Twitter @GregLarryCTN.

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