Last month’s announcement that the National 4-H Conference Center in Chevy Chase would be sold came abruptly for some alumni and others who have become used to the building as a longtime fixture in the community.
Thousands have signed an online petition urging the National 4-H Council to change its mind.
The commercial real estate company CBRE listed the 12.28-acre site at 7100 Connecticut Ave. following the National 4-H Council’s announcement of the sale on March 16.
“The pandemic has forced us to evaluate the National 4-H Conference Center’s economic viability and its future ability to meet Cooperative Extension’s 4-H program’s needs,” the council said in a statement last month.
As some members respond with a petition drive to save the center, others have accepted the announcement with resignation. Chevy Chase officials are determining what their next steps should be in planning for how the community could change.
The National 4-H Council is accepting bids on the property through early May.
The organization, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, offers programs for kids and teens in areas that include health, science, agriculture and civic engagement, according to its website. There are 6 million 4-H members, it states.
The council has owned the 128-year-old building since the early 1950s. The building has hosted multiple youth organizations during that time.
The 4-H website estimates that it has hosted as many as 2,500 youths for its events, until the pandemic in early 2020.
Chevy Chase Mayor Cecily Baskir told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that she remembers flying kites at the center when she was in fourth grade at Chevy Chase Elementary School. She said she’s been accustomed to driving by the building most of her life.
“It’s very hard to imagine change, [with] something that I’m so used to. But we all have to accept that change comes,” she said.
Baskir said the conference center has been iconic for many out-of-town guests visiting the D.C. area.
“I know that over the years, when I’ve met people, when they’ve heard that I’m from Chevy Chase, they’ll say something like, ‘Oh, I remember when we did the school trip to Washington. We stayed at some place in Chevy Chase,’” she said.
Alganesh Piechoniski, an agent and educator with 4-H’s youth development program at the University of Maryland Extension in Derwood, told Bethesda Beat on Monday that she was shocked when she heard the building was being sold.
“I don’t think it was something I was prepared for,” she said.
Piechoniski said she got involved with 4-H more than 30 years ago after finishing college in Michigan and moving to Maryland. Her second job was working as a program assistant.
“We came to the National 4-H Council [Center] for orientation. … So, that had a lot of impact [on me],” she said.
Piechoniski said in her current role, she supervises and helps volunteers who work with 4-H youth members. Volunteers help staff events at the conference center, she said.
“Sometimes, if there’s some events happening, they’ll ask us to send some youth to help out other youth members. We’ll recruit kids to go help wherever they can, whether it’s help with the touring or explaining what 4-H means,” she said.
Piechoniski said she is sad about the community losing a place where she made many friends.
“It’s heartbreaking for a lot of us that really grew up and have seen this thing [grow],” she said.
Following the announcement of the sale last month, a petition was started on change.org, urging the National 4-H Council to maintain the center.
“The council has made, and is following through with this proposition without finding a new location to host the plethora of conferences offered by the 4-H program,” the petition states. “Another facility with this much history, sentimental value, and in such a perfect location with the perfect set up would be near impossible to find.”
The petition had more than 6,900 signatures as of Thursday morning.
In response to questions from Bethesda Beat last week about the petition, the National-4H Council released a statement that said the organization recognizes the center’s importance to alumni.
“We share that passion for Center and did everything we could to keep it — it is a significant part of 4-H’s history as a national convening space,” the statement read. “The reality is that even if fundraising efforts were led by our incredible alumni and partners, the long-term viability of the Center would still be a challenge, based on our thorough economic and fundraising feasibility evaluations.
“This decision is the financially responsible thing to do, so 4-H can expand our efforts to serve the six million youth who rely on us in all 50 states, territories and over 3,000 counties across the country.”
Town wants to be involved
The Chevy Chase Town Council has appointed a task force of five residents to advise the council on the sale, according to a statement from the town.
According to the statement, the building is being assessed for $20 million and 4-H is accepting bids from private developers, nonprofits, elder care facilities and educational organizations, among others.
The statement goes on to say that 4-H will receive bids by early May, select a winner in June and close the sale by the end of the year.
Baskir said the sale is a private transaction involving 4-H and CBRE, but the town will have oversight, through its ordinances, in what comes next at the site.
“We’re very much hoping that whoever is interested in buying the property will want to work with us to come up with a plan that will be approved as easily as possible at each stage of approval,” she said.
Baskir said the town has solicited the views of nearby residents through two “listening sessions” and hopes residents will continue to weigh in. The town is working on its official position on the future of the site, she said.
“We as a town council are trying to make sure we’re communicating with our residents as we try to develop what our official town position or positions are. So CBRE is not part of that process,” she said.
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org