Private leadership might prevent future follies

August 14, 1997

A number of higher-ups in the Hagerstown business community thought the 1st Urban Fiber project had a funny smell long before it began its ill-fated attempt to spin waste paper into gold.

Behind the scenes they murmured ominously about the soundness of the concept itself, about offerings the city was sacrificing on the economic development altar to lure the company and about the sagacity of locating a heavy, smelly, noisy industry in a residential and recreational neighborhood.

1st Urban could still be a success, in a financial if not a neighborly sense. But more and more it's appearing the business leaders were right.


There's always been something a little disquieting about the project - changing names, changing focuses, changing costs and changing employment projections.

The city, which was anticipating hundreds of thousands of dollars in host fees, taxes and electricity sales, is now left in the lurch.

1st Urban Fiber opened to marching bands and confetti. It closed to the cheers of its neighbors.

With all these well-documented foibles I find myself wondering not so much about the future of the plant, but what would have happened in the past if Hagerstown's people of business had stepped forward and raised their fears in a public forum.

Perhaps the city and its gung-ho mayor would have, at the very least, looked before they leapt. Maybe the viability of the project would have been more thoroughly examined. Maybe the neighbors would have been more completely educated and warned about what to expect in the way of noises and smells.

And perhaps we wouldn't have this green elephant in the middle of town with nothing to show for its Camden Yards-like investment in terms of employment or contributions to the city treasury.

Of course it's not the responsibility of businessmen to trash other businessmen. But when a project is poised to inflict such a devilish bruise on the community, it seems the public good would have been served if a few of our more respected business leaders had warned of storm clouds on the horizon.

Right now these business leaders have the rather hollow satisfaction of knowing they had a point. Rather like the hollow satisfaction I suppose they get in being right about the Economic Development Commission back in 1991 and the Sanitary District in 1994.

The Sanitary District is perhaps the classic example. The business community was instrumental in writing a task force report - one of the smartest, most detailed, citizen documents I've ever seen - warning of impending doom in the sewer department.

The Roulette Administration-era County Commissioners yawned at the report and put it on the shelf. Business leaders were privately outraged, but none came forward publicly to call the commissioners on their inaction. If they'd put their names and reputations up against these do-nothing commissioners, we might have stopped the sewer bleeding twenty million dollars ago.

More recently, when Sen. Don Munson dropped the ball this past legislative session on a bill to help Fort Ritchie convert to civilian use, he was (with good reason) savaged by top community leaders - behind his back. But no one wanted to come forward and publicly explain how the business community had to step in and do Munson's job for him to rescue the bill.

Off the record they have horror story on horror story about ineptness at the Washington County elected-official level. Yet they neither voice these criticisms in public nor find and back a decent candidate of their own come election time.

In some ways it's understandable. For one thing, business people willing to tell the truth and take on enemies sometimes have trouble staying in business.

And their overtures often receive an icy shoulder from elected officials - for example, just last week when board of education members bristled at a generous offer from the Greater Hagerstown business group to help with the search for a new schools superintendent. If all you get for your good will is a public slap, why bother?

But here's the rub. Elected officials know they don't have to pay attention to the business leaders, because the business leaders never go public and expose office holders for the (I need to be delicate here) not-always-on-top-of-their-game people that they are.

One thing should be abundantly clear to the smart, talented people of the community who like to float beneath the surface of public awareness: Working behind the scenes isn't working.

This community is thirsting for leaders. If nothing else, I get out a lot and more than any other word, that's the one on the lips of local residents: Leaders. Washington Countians are thirsting for leadership.

And leadership doesn't consist of closed-door breakfast meetings and off-the-record phone calls.

If there's a problem, we need champions in the community who will stand up and identify both the problem and the people causing the problem in a clear public voice. Champions whose names will generate respect and whose opinions will be listened to.

This community is filled with good, talented people. But expertise kept under a bushel is no expertise at all.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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