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Hagerstown's new mayor, five months later

October 10, 1997

I've gotta admit it. I was wrong.

By now, almost five months after his election, I had expected some misstep from Mayor Bob Bruchey, a political novice who knocked off 12-year incumbent Steve Sager this past May.

Not only have there been no major blunders, but Bruchey has fleshed out a program for the city that borrows from the best ideas of past administrations and attempts to improve on them. He shared his ideas and answered questions this past Thursday at a meeting of the Hagerstown Exchange Club.

Bruchey said he's in the process of recruiting five local banks to join in reviving the revolving loan fund started under the administration of the late Donald R. Frush. Bruchey is asking them to commit $20,000 apiece annually. When combined with Community Development Block Grant funds and cash from other sources, Bruchey said he expects the fund to be self-sustaining after five years.

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The Downtown Assessment District, another Frush initiative designed to allow downtown merchants to compete with mall stores by charging them a small fee to fund promotions, will also be changed, if Bruchey has his way.

"As it is currently now existing, it does not live up to its original concept," Bruchey said. He added that while it works well on promotions, DAD needs more emphasis on its business-recruiting mission. And its budget, at $24,000 a year, is much too low, Bruchey said. The mayor favors finding alternate funding, so the DAD tax could be eliminated altogether.

"I'm sorry, but people are taxed to death, and the last thing you want to do when you bring a new business in is to tell them they're going to have to pay another tax," he said.

Neighborhoods First, a Sager administration initiative, will continue under Bruchey, with a special emphasis on eliminating graffiti as soon as it appears. Residents will have access to paint and cleaning tools, he said, so that wherever this sort of vandalism shows up, it can be quickly removed or covered over.

Bruchey then turned to his own plans for getting more people involved in government. One plan would recruit students from the city's two high schools, and allow them to sit in with the mayor and council in their work sessions, so they can see firsthand what government is all about.

"We talk to a lot of people, to senior citizens, to middle-aged people, but we never talk to those who are going to be our future leaders," he said.

In another effort to reach out to citizens who might not be able to come to City Hall during the day, Bruchey said he will soon begin a series of twice-a-month nighttime sessions at City Hall, from 5 to 9 p.m. There'll be an intercom outside City Hall connected to Bruchey's office. When someone buzzes it, the mayor said he'll walk down and let his caller in for a chat.

Other issues covered included:

- The drug and prostitution problem along the Jonathan Street corridor. Bruchey said there'll be some changes in traffic patterns on the streets there, so that people stopping to buy drugs or solicit sex will have a tougher time escaping police. Bruchey also promised to have city police look into alleged drug dealing at Mills Park, located off Northern Avenue.

- The renovation of three corners of Public Square should be completed by the Mummer's Day parade, and the fourth corner, where Carson's Jewelers is located, should be done by Dec. 1, Bruchey said.

- Developer Vincent Groh and the State of Maryland are close to signing a contract for the old Brandt Cabinet warehouse on Antietam Street, which the state wants to demolish and use as the site of a new District Court building, Bruchey said.

As that happens, Bruchey said the city will also try to expand parking in the area to benefit not only the court, but the Maryland Theatre's patrons and those who visit the arts and entertainment facilities along South Potomac Street.

- In answer to questions, Bruchey said there are standards in the building code that owners of commercial property must follow. But he said he would rather try providing them with some incentives to improve their properties before taking a hard-line approach. Bruchey said he wants to approach owners of vacant storefronts to display an enlarged version of a city poster, on the theory that it would look more attractive than dirty glass and the debris inside.

- To one member's question about reducing the number of big trucks that use downtown streets as a shortcut between Interstate 81 and Interstate 70, Bruchey said the staff was preparing a list of local trucking firms for him, so that he could ask them to be good corporate citizens and find another way to go.

Bruchey, who told the group that the most frustrating thing about his job is the slow speed at which government moves, nevertheless seems to realize that for now, patience and persuasion are his best tools. It will be interesting to see how he reacts when (at some point) that approach doesn't work.

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

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