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Community takes war to art form

August 15, 1997

You could be excused for being underwhelmed when the Association for Preservation of Civil War Sites announced it wanted to move to Washington County. Certainly the town of Sharpsburg was.

And you could be excused for believing the Washington County legislative delegation was being a bit heavy handed with the old, recently dissolved tourism board. Certainly the County Commissioners did.

But for a couple years now, off-stage events have moved steadily toward cementing Hagerstown as the recognized hub of Civil War tourism. That goal received a considerable boost this week with the official announcement that Washington County will be the site of a $30 million motion picture similar to "Gettysburg." More importantly, it could be home to a permanent studio for tapping whenever Hollywood is in the market for Civil War-related shoots.

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This week Hagerstown became the unqualified envy of probably a dozen or more cities along the Eastern Seaboard. APCWS President Dennis Frye wasn't exactly gloating, but his smile would have wrapped several times around the Four Points Sheraton Inn during Wednesday's feel-good conference where the projects were formally announced.

What a difference the years have made in Frye, who has metamorphosed from a quiet, somewhat bookish historian to an aggressive promoter of Washington County's crucial part in the Civil War. Now when Frye speaks of "kicking butt" he's referring to this community's tourism win over its neighbors, not Lee's over the Union at Manassas.

Frye clearly sees the irony that what was arguably the nation's darkest hour on that excruciating, smoky, September day at Antietam is now a shining light for local tourism and economics.

"The tragedy is that there were 23,000 casualties then. But now that (battle) is our strength," Frye said.

Frye himself deflects credit like sunlight on tinfoil. He even loudly and frequently praises the County Commissioners for their help in convincing the artsy folks to raise their curtain here, at a time when the commissioners' popularity is that of an emphysema attack.

And to be sure, there are other heroes here, not the least of whom is Mike Callas who is leading a Sherman-like attack on financing issues.

But Frye has orchestrated this community commitment, which was aided by a chain of events set in motion by Hagerstown's loss of a proposed Civil War medical museum.

Four years ago the medical museum was all but a lock for Washington County. All developers wanted was a jurisdiction to set them up with a nice location. No one locally stepped forward, but officials in Frederick grabbed the phones and sweet talked the museum into their city, where today it is a success.

In Washington County there were two reactions: The then-president of the County Commissioners scoffed that the museum "is only one job," and rated the loss as insignificant.

Fortunately there are those in the community with greater vision. City Council member Susan Saum-Wicklein, for one, came forward and admitted the community had made a mistake - and vowed it would never happen again.

When opportunity recurred, the City Council swung hard and this time it didn't miss.

That was about three years ago when Frye's APCWS was looking to move from Virginia to Sharpsburg. The Sharpsburg Council rejected the plan, but Hagerstown moved swiftly to offer the organization a suite on Public Square.

On the surface, this may not have sounded terribly exciting - administrative offices, only a couple jobs, etc. But boy, the spinoffs.

A national Civil War convention, next month's re-enactment and now Hagerstown's entry into the world of film.

This also shows why people with an eye to the future were so impatient to reform the visitor and convention bureau several months ago.

Privately, local leaders were acknowledging they had a good shot at landing "Gods and Generals," which would come together in a sort of harmonic convergence with the 135th Antietam anniversary re-enactment. A tourism team that understood the significance of, and was set to promote, this Civil War Crossroads theme was critical.

Happily, the right people got involved, pushed the right buttons and produced the right results. The stars, it appears, are converging on Hagerstown in more ways than one.

Less glamorous but probably more significant for the community would be the proposed permanent studio, film school, living history center and annual film festival. Movies come and go, but this conglomeration of celluloid-related cornerstones would produce positive results on into the next millennium.

For years, Washington County has struggled to find a niche that will replace the heavy machine-oil manufacturing days of Fairchild and Mack. Ironic, wouldn't it be, if this community were to trade in its tattooed, lunchpail days for the arts? Archie Bunker for Carroll O'Connor. Blue Collar for Blues Fest.

We have the foundation, with the city's dance schools, music festivals, Maryland Symphony, art museum and downtown art studios. They are supported nicely through out the region by the Totem Pole Playhouse, Contemporary Theater Festival in Shepherdstown and Morgan County's Studio Tour, among other notables.

There are risks to these film projects, and of course nothing is guaranteed. But as we head into the 135th Antietam anniversary, many roads appear to be crossing, not only in tourism and the arts, but in areas of community and government interaction and cooperation.

Grand things have been promised for the future. But something grand has already been accomplished - all of Washington County's troops have been rousted, assembled and pointed toward the common target of community pride and improvement.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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