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If tourism is our future, let's do it right

September 24, 1997

What's next? I've heard that question 50 times (at least) in the wake of the commemoration of the 135th Battle of Antietam. Sometimes it's asked with an air of anticipation, the way a kid at an amusement park asks what ride comes next. Sometimes it's asked with an air of dread, like that same kid's parents might ask which roller-coaster or tilt-a-whirl they have to endure now.

But whichever attitude you have, the key question is: Now that the area has proven that local Civil War history can attract the tourist dollar, will entrepreneurs bring us development that resembles the historic recreations of Williamsburg, Va. or some Civil War-themed amusement park?

It was fear of the latter possibility that led a group of south county residents to oppose a state proposal for a Civil War conference center back in 1989. An amusement park wasn't really what the state's consultants had in mind, but there are those in the community who still fear a Disney-style facility will be proposed here, and that county government - which seems to operate on the idea that all growth is good - won't say no.

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Then there's another point of view, expressed to me from time to time, most recently in a letter from Adam Lewis of Hagerstown. Lewis' letter, which will appear on this page tomorrow, asks why any change at all is necessary in Washington County.

His letter concludes by saying that "All I ask is for some thought to go into the future planning of this county, so that my children may one day enjoy the way of life I know now."

The request for planning is fair, but the wish that the county will not change is impossible to grant, for several reasons, the first being Washington County's water and sewer debt. Paying off that debt will require attracting new users to the system. Even if those new users are businesses rather than homeowners, new jobs will attract other new businesses, or inspire existing ones to expand. Change will come, in some form.

Then there's the matter of private property. If a farmer like Frank Artz, on whose farm the re-enactment was held, gets to retirement age and his children don't want to carry on the farming tradition, what are his choices?

County zoning allows him to sell his land for housing, and so, barring some measures needed to comply with other ordinances, there's no legal reason he or any other farmer can't do that. And if selling the land for housing, rather than to someone who wants to farm it, is more lucrative, who has the right to say he shouldn't take the better deal?

Nobody, but that doesn't mean we can't try to persuade the Frank Artzes of Washington County to remain in agriculture by making it more profitable, either through mechanisms like the milk-price subsidy sought in the last Maryland General Assembly session by Del. Anita Stup, R-Washington, Frederick, or the purchase of scenic easements.

But those are only two pieces of a puzzle which can't be assembled until Washington County decides what it wants to be. And as the late Keller Nigh said in 1989, if we don't decide, the developers will decide for us.

How do we decide such a question? Fortunately, the decision-making process has already been invented. It's call strategic planning, and involves deciding what is possible, versus some unrealistic blue-sky wish list approach to the future. The town of Mercersburg, Pa., for example, used a similar process and decided that it didn't have the sites to handle large new industries, and would concentrate on tourism and smaller firms instead.

Back in 1988, a Washington County group called Focus, Inc., used the process to write a report that led to changes in county government and emergency services. Unfortunately, it said little about tourism's possibilities here.

Just because I believe tourism has plenty of potential doesn't mean it's the best thing for this county. It's time to use the strategic-planning process to analyze the possibilities a focus on tourism would offer and set some goals so that what we get is a respectful, preservation-based approach rather than some schlocky rip-off of our local heritage. And let's do it now, because when that 30-foot-tall neon-lit head of Robert E. Lee goes up on the Sharpsburg Pike, it will be too late.

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

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