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City may study need for convention center

February 19, 1998

By JULIE E. GREENE

Staff Writer

A state senator says he will try to obtain state funds for a study on the feasibility of opening a convention center in Washington County.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said Thursday he is drafting legislation to have Maryland's Stadium Authority provide $35,000 for the feasibility study. The legislation will call for the money to be available in the fiscal year starting July 1.

A task force charged with investigating the feasibility of locating a convention center in downtown Hagerstown is considering a site at the center of the northwest block off Public Square, said Kathleen Hynes, chairwoman of the task force.

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A 3,000-seat convention center could back up to the North Potomac Street Parking Deck, and the front entrance could be on the west side, Hynes said. A hotel facing east could open across from the convention center.

That site would involve tearing down most or all of the three-building Baldwin House complex and the old McCrory's building at 52 W. Washington St., Hynes said. Discount store D.E. Jones is expected to open in the old McCrory's in the next few months.

An access road between West Washington and West Franklin streets would be needed so people and deliveries could be dropped off at the center and hotel, officials said.

Hynes said Maryland Stadium Authority Executive Director Bruce H. Hoffman preferred a downtown location because of the state's Smart Growth plan, which focuses on curbing urban sprawl and revitalizing city cores.

Hoffman was out of the country Thursday and could not be reached for comment. The stadium authority helped fund expansions of convention centers in Baltimore and Ocean City.

Munson said he had not known that the downtown site was being considered, but thought it was a great idea.

"The last serious slum building we have downtown is the Baldwin House and something has to be done with it," Munson said.

Munson said he preferred a convention center to the idea of merging the city police and fire departments into the 32-46 W. Washington St. complex. Some city officials have said that option is being considered.

A convention center "sounds like a better alternative because it would bring more jobs downtown," Munson said.

City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said the mayor and City Council have not discussed using the downtown site for a convention center because it is in the conceptual stage.

Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission Executive Director John Howard said a convention center and hotel would give a boost to the downtown economy.

Any facilities would have to be compatible with the surrounding downtown area, and traffic and parking would have to be addressed, Howard said.

Similar projects have helped revitalize downtowns in other cities, such as Winston-Salem, N.C., which has a convention center and Radisson Hotel surrounded by one-way streets, he said.

Munson said he was unaware Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce officials planned to ask him to request funding for a feasibility study.

A study would address whether the city needs a convention center and if so, where it could be located and what funding sources could be used, said Phil Kelly, chamber president.

Munson said he didn't think the stadium authority has ever funded a feasibility study, so Hagerstown and Washington County might have to contribute toward the cost.

Chamber officials also want state funds for a study of air service to and from Washington County, Kelly said.

Air service will be a critical issue if the area is to have a convention center, Hynes said. Convention planners look at air service availability when determining where to book conventions, she said.

Regularly scheduled flights between Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Hagerstown were discontinued in mid-December 1997, said Carolyn Motz, manager of the Hagerstown-Washington County Regional Airport.

USAirways Express provides daily scheduled flights to and from Pittsburgh every day, she said.

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