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Editorial - A new convention center?

October 30, 1997

If Hagerstown builds a $7 million convention center that could accommodate up to 5,000 visitors, it could be one of two things - a big boost for the area's tourism efforts, or a costly boondoggle. Before a dime is spent on consultant studies, property appraisals or anything similar, citizens need the answer to one question: Where is another community, similar to Hagerstown, doing the same thing successfully?

If there is such a place, it shouldn't be hard to find. The idea of attracting conventions that are too small for Washington, D.C. and Baltimore is too obvious to be original. Somewhere around the Capital Beltway, someone else has tried this idea, and they're either making a lot of money or struggling to pay the debt service on the construction.

Looking at what nearby areas are doing is an approach that worked with the Hagerstown ice rink. Those studying the idea found that a rink in nearby Frederick was so popular that it was getting tough to find ice time for youth hockey teams. That meant that Hagerstown could count on some overflow business, and perhaps foster competition between the two cities' teams.

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The same approach needs to be taken with the convention-center proposal. It may turn out to be a great idea, or it may turn out to be an idea that's ahead of its time, like Washington County's Conococheague sewage-treatment plant. Somewhere in the distant future there will undoubtedly be a need for the capacity built into that plant. But the debt service can't be paid in the future. It (and the debt that's been piling up) has to be paid now, which is why rates and taxes went up.

That said, we will be very skeptical of any citizens' study committee report that does not cite specific examples of similar-sized communities that have made such an idea work. We'd also like to hear how those areas handled the issues of traffic and additional staffing for local tourist attractions. Building a facility to attract new business may be a good idea, but county residents can't afford to bet on a hunch. Like handicappers at the horse track, before they commit, they need to look at some past performances.

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