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City makes pitch for Civil War museum

January 29, 1997

By STEVEN T. DENNIS

Staff Writer

Hagerstown officials, who last year lost their battle to land the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, say the war isn't over yet.

They now are trying to convince museum officials to abandon their headquarters in Frederick, Md., and relocate to a city-owned building in Hagertown.

The bid for the museum, which opened in Frederick last June, appears to have been lost, although Hagerstown officials hold out hope the museum's board will consider their offer at its March meeting.

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Museum Board President Robert Gearinger and Chairman Gordon Dammann said board members participating in a conference call about two weeks ago agreed to stay in Frederick.

Dammann, a Lena, Ill., dentist whose 4,000-piece collection comprises the bulk of the museum's artifacts, said some board members had been dissatisfied with the slow pace of work on the Frederick building.

Gearinger said the museum, dedicated to medical techniques pioneered during the Civil War, has a long-term lease with Frederick, and has received in-kind services and contributions from Frederick County citizens who expected the museum to remain there.

Mayor Steven T. Sager said the Hagerstown's plan calls for using Community Development Block Grant funds to renovate a city-owned building for use by the museum. The museum would pay for utilities and a payment in lieu of taxes, he said.

The city would not disclose which building would be offered.

No general fund money would be spent on the project, Sager said.

Sager said the building the city was offering was "essentially empty" and an "obvious sore thumb." Renovation of the building, including design and construction, would take about eight months, Sager said.

Museum Executive Director JaNeen Smith said she toured four Hagerstown locations with city officials about three months ago.

Smith said that the building the museum now uses has had some problems, including a leaky roof and inadequate heating and air conditioning systems.

The building, owned by the city of Frederick, was built around 1832. Frederick is in the process of improving the building's heating system, and has pledged to put on a new roof in the spring, Smith said.

Smith said the building needs $2 million in other improvements, including a chemical fire sprinkler system.

The state of Maryland has awarded the museum a $1 million matching grant for the work, and the museum is working to raise the other $1 million, she said.

Frederick Mayor James Grimes said Frederick was working to improve the building.

"I have every reason to believe that both parties are moving forward in good faith and we will continue to work together to make sure this is one of the finest museums on the East Coast," he said.

Hagerstown City Councilwoman Susan Saum-Wicklein said the plan to lure the museum to Hagerstown started to come together after she learned of problems the museum was having at its Frederick location.

Saum-Wicklein said a friend of hers met a man from the Midwest on the Internet. The man wanted to build a Civil War-related attraction in Maryland and was interested in Frederick as a location. Saum-Wicklein's friend suggested he look at Hagerstown, and gave him Saum-Wicklein's phone number.

The man visited Frederick, stopping in at the medicine museum, and Hagerstown in October, Saum-Wicklein said.

The man told Saum-Wicklein that staff at the medicine museum complained about problems they were having with the building.

Saum-Wicklein said that since November, the City Council, in closed sessions, had been discussing making an offer to the museum.

"We would be remiss if we did not try to recruit this for Hagerstown," Saum-Wicklein said.

"This isn't a fast, thrown-together project. We've given it considerable thought ... We're still hoping the board will consider Hagerstown."

She said the building offered to the museum was safe, with heating and air-conditioning, and was within a block of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites building. That organization recently moved its headquarters to Hagerstown from Fredericksburg, Va.

"Destination location is the key here," she said. "You have to give reasons for people who would not normally come to Hagerstown to come. We knew that this would be a long-shot."

Sager said having the medicine museum in Hagerstown would provide a boost to the city's "Crossroads of the Civil War" tourism marketing strategy.

He said the idea is for people to get motel rooms in Hagerstown and take day trips to Antietam, Gettysburg, Pa., Harper's Ferry, W.Va., Monocacy, Md., and Manassas, Va.

Smith said the medical museum had 17,000 visitors from June 15, 1996, to Nov. 13, 1996. She said she expects 50,000 to 60,000 visitors in 1997, and 80,000 visitors a year when all exhibits at the museum are fully laid out. Current display space would be expanded by about four times over the next two or three years as improvements are made to the building, she said.

The museum board chose the Frederick location after attempts to locate the museum at Antietam bogged down.

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