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Reviving Hagerstown

April 05, 1998

Bob Maginnis

The City of Hagerstown is preparing to spend $1.6 million to prepare the old fairgrounds property for development. Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening recently announced a $1 million-plus grant to upgrade sidewalks, curbs and provide other amenities in the neighborhoods to the east of Public Square. Those two developments may not seem to be related, but together they add up to a once-in a-generation opportunity to revitalize the city.

For the last 20 years, the major emphasis has been on reviving the downtown by upgrading commercial, retail and office space there, even as residents began moving into housing developments and new rental properties on the fringe of the city. That "captive audience" of people with money to spend was no longer available to walk to stores and entertainment downtown. But things are happening that could reverse that trend, if city officials can tie them all together in a campaign to market the city's East End.

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The biggest plus is the redevelopment of the fairgrounds into a sports and recreation complex. The postage-stamp-sized yards of most area homes aren't a minus if you can live with walking distance of 68 acres of open space. To promote home ownership, the city has tapped into Gov. Glendening's program with one of its own called "40 at 4 percent." In three targeted neighborhoods, including one that abuts the fairgrounds, citizens who meet income guidelines can get 30-year mortgages at 4 percent.

According to Karen Giffin. the city's community relations director, the city will have $2 million of $40 million available statewide, and applications are available through the Community Development Department at (301) 739-8577, ext. 136.

To encourage people to apply for loans to purchase or renovate homes in the city, Giffin said that later this spring the city will open "The Hagerstown Home Store" in the Roslyn Building on E. Franklin Street next door to City Hall.

According to Giffin, the store won't just serve homeowners, but landlord and real-estate people as well, by providing information on topics like financially pre-qualifying home buyers and lead paint removal.

If you're a new homeowner, or even a renter in one of the city's, neighborhoods, the city government is also gearing up a program to help neighbors work together. Called "Neighborhoods First," it will encourage people within the city to form groups to plan improvements or to deal with concerns in their areas. The city staff envisions this program may take three to five years to come fully operational, with the ultimate aim of making "Hagerstown the premier city in which to live in the Tristate area."

Could it happen? Before I got married and moved to within a hop, skip and a jump of grandma's house in Smithsburg, I lived all over the city, and my former addresses included North Potomac, Prospect and East Franklin streets, Broadway and even a short stint at the YMCA. Prospect was my favorite, because on Sundays, when both of us were off, we could walk to City Park.

The fairgrounds could be that sort of attraction for the East End, provided that it's open even when there are no events scheduled there. That means providing security, which could be accomplished in part by providing residential space for caretakers and night watchmen. It also means working on bringing in low-cost family entertainment on a regular basis. It may be dull stuff to most adults, but something as simple as a Sunday pony ride can be the highlight of a small child's week.

Success will also require marketing the city as nice place to live for those who don't live here now, because local people remember the city as it was 20 or more years ago, before the decline began. Remembering is not a bad thing, but sometimes it can prevent you from looking forward. People from outside the area, who aren't burdened with the memory of what used to be, may be better able to see the possibilities.

I remember the Great Hagerstown Fair, and regret that its successor, Ag Expo, has moved to the state's old agricultural experiment station site off the Sharpsburg Pike. With the Dual Highway motels nearby, the event might have developed into a major tourist attraction with the proper promotion. But that's what it was, and I can't let that prevent me from seeing what could be.

For instance, the view from the top of the grandstand, overlooking the mountains, is wonderful. Why not a restaurant or some other meeting facility there? How you'd get patrons in and out and up and down the stairs is another story, but the secret is to think about possibilities first, and potential problems later.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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