What it will take to make downtown 'a contender'

March 08, 1998

Mayor Bob Bruchey confessed to being a tad nervous before a Chamber of Commerce audience Tuesday morning, where he presented his first State of the City address.

But you wouldn't have known it. He appeared to be in mid-season political form, with a speech that was dry as toast and caused Chamber members to idly twirl their breakfast forks halfway through.

No, it wasn't entertaining, but right now Hagerstown doesn't need entertainment. Hagerstown needs a lot of the unglamorous, roll-up-the-sleeves trench work that Bruchey's address embodied.


This means neighborhood by neighborhood assessment and improvement. Neighborhoods have to be clean, attractive, safe and interesting.

If they are, they will attract people.

And people, as Bruchey and company seem to understand, are everything. Downtown needs people. Let me amend that. Downtown needs people with money.

A big deal is always made when a business moves in or out of downtown. But truth is, 10 families with household incomes of $50,000 moving into downtown is going to have a far more positive impact than a new drug store.

Downtown Hagerstown, the fixed income capital of the free world, needs residents with some cash. Once the dollars are in place, don't worry, the merchants will start lining up. To entice businesses downtown figuring they'll wait patiently for people and profits to follow is folly.

This isn't to ignore the needs of people on fixed incomes. Quite the opposite. A vibrant downtown will have places to shop in walking distance of seniors and places to work in walking distance of single parents on welfare.

Hagerstown's renters-to-owners ratio is now 60-40, a percentage the city wants to reverse. Financially, the city has several existing and proposed plans that make buying a house downtown a highly attractive proposal. Assuming, of course, that people want to buy houses downtown.

For that, neighborhoods need to be presentable, and the potential home buyer must be convinced that the community is on the way up, so their investment will appreciate.

To that end, three programs deserve special mention: the Neighborhoods First community improvement project; Hot Spots funding, which is designed to free the Jonathan Street neighborhood from crime, and the fine Hagerstown Police bicycle patrol force.

From what I've heard about Neighborhoods First, it could - actually, it must (not to put too much pressure on them) - be the foundation upon which other successes are built.

To be a contender, you have to get into shape before you can properly be taught to box. Neighborhoods First has the huge chore of whipping run-down communities into shape - asking the residents what their neighborhoods need the most, then seeing that the problems are addressed.

Hot Spots provides some financial oxygen for communities laboring under the stresses of crime. The danger here is that people may assume that since they have a little extra cash, the problems will go away. Trust me, the money is the easy part.

Jonathan Street can improve under Hot Spots only with dedication and hard work from lots of people. The YMCA is prepared to bolt downtown, partially because it abuts this "hot spot." It might have been nice if, instead of fleeing, leaders at the Y would take a lead role in helping the community improve so people wouldn't be scared to drop their children there.

Neighborhoods can change dramatically- ask the people of The Hill in Martinsburg - and the people who live on Jonathan Street have been burdened long enough.

Along those lines, the police bikes are one of the best crime fighting tools I've seen operating downtown. A drug dealer can see a cruiser coming from forever, but the bikes are speedy and silent and police say they are an unqualified success. Riders have the mobility to cover sizable areas, but they still offer the face-to-face contact of an officer walking the beat. Besides, they look cool as all get-out.

Bruchey covered a lot of other ground in his address, to be sure. And lots of the projects - the ice rink, Public Square, the Clock Building - are much more impressive, visually.

Certainly, development is important. More important though, is creating an environment that encourages development. If the city provides the earth, fertilizer and moisture, private enterprise will be along directly to plant the seeds.

The mayor, council, administrators, staff and volunteers appear to understand these basic priorities.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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