Coming full circle, Sager rocks 'his baby' for the last time

June 04, 1997

Sixteen years ago this month, on the steps of a renovated row house on Jonathan Street, I did my first interview with Steve Sager, then head of Hagerstown's's Community Development Department. Unlike most other city department heads, who were happy if the press never came around, Sager sought me out to show me how his department was helping improve neighborhoods by targeting the worst-looking homes for renovation.

With city block grant fund loans, boarded-up eyesores had been turned into homes that sold for less than $40,000 apiece, with mortgage interest below 5 percent, and people who might have been renters all their lives had a chance to build equity in a place of their own.

Sager was singing the praises of that same program this past Monday. In his last official press conference with the city, Sager showed off another renovation, this time of five townhouse units in the 300 block of North Prospect Street, across from the old Moller Organ plant. Two of the units have already been sold, and thanks in part to a partnership with Interfaith Housing Development, Inc., another couple of families get their shot at the American dream of home ownership.


For the final press conference of a 12-year administration, it wasn't very exciting. Sager was upbeat, firing off lots of facts about the program in short, quick bursts. But when a reporter asked him how he felt about the last day, Sager passed on the chance to take a shot at anyone or play the martyr. He joked instead, saying he wasn't going to give a speech like Richard Nixon once had, about not having Nixon to "kick around" anymore. I'll be around, Sager said, and if you want to call, please do.

Sager said much the same to Mayor Bob Bruchey II at the swearing-in ceremony, although he had to feel the irony of the moment.

Sager began his career in City Hall working with the block grant program and lost his job during the administration of Mayor Don Frush because Frush wanted to provide more help to commercial businesses. Sager then ran for mayor, won and changed the emphasis of the program himself to provide more help to business. In his last campaign (what there was of it), Sager recognized the need for a new emphasis on the neighborhoods. But Bruchey turned the program against him, saying the emphasis on "bricks and mortar" renovation downtown had been overdone.

And so after 16 years, Sager was back where he started, rocking "his baby" one last time and perhaps wondering what happened to his political career. An opponent who had only the vaguest outline of a platform had knocked off an incumbent who as a challenger had held a ton of press conferences and issued a position paper on just about every issue city government faced.

What happened? Like a lot of people in Washington County, Sager didn't believe in the power of public relations.

People passing by the northeast corner of Public Square now take for granted that it's been renovated and that a state agency has been brought in as a major tenant.

People take for granted the development of Wesel Boulevard, and the share of tax money that it brings to the city.

People take for granted the fact that City Hall is no longer rocked by unprofessional wrangles between elected officials that once made the city look like a hick town full of quarrelsome hillbillies.

Those people needed to be reminded that while a lot of things happen by chance, these things didn't. While the average citizen was watching the evening news, on many nights Sager was in a meeting somewhere, pushing to get the slow millstone of government to grind out solutions to city problems. Sager knew how much time he'd spent on these things, as did those who cover government. He and his campaign just forgot to tell everybody else.

Sager is by no means alone in this failing. Washington County is full of people who believe that public relations is something you do after something bad happens, like an industrial accident. It's more than that. It's also passing on the good news as it happens.

This past Monday, the good news should have been that two families are becoming homeowners, but no one arranged to have them there for the press conference. When the story aired that night on WHAG-TV, the pictures weren't of their smiling faces, but of workmen cleaning up an empty dwelling.

Those who favor continuing this program will have to make a better case for it, because there are those who feel as Mayor Frush did in August 1981, when he said that using block grant money for homeowner loans would "further deteriorate this town if allowed to continue."

I believe in the value of home ownership. As a former renter of properties all over the City of Hagerstown, I reacted to problems in neighborhoods where I lived by enduring the months left on my lease, then trying to find something better. As a homeowner now, I'll stay and fight for my investment.

Will someone fight for the city's housing program? Somebody had better, because for the first time in 20 years, they can't count on Sager to do it.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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