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Re-using Hagerstown's old YMCA: What's your idea?

June 28, 1998

Tim Rowland

Close to 80 years ago, supporters of the Hagerstown YMCA raised $300,000 for their new headquarters on North Potomac Street. The fund-raising campaign took all of nine days.

Safe to say, the community has always had a lively interest in this institution, whose roots in the county were planted shortly after the Civil War.

Now the YMCA, and the community along with it, are at an interesting crossroads. Not too long after the turn of the century, the Y expects to move to a new, $6.9 million facility just north of the city.

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When announcing the move, Y officials promised they wouldn't leave the old downtown building to twist in the wind and to their credit this apparently was not just empty talk.

The YMCA has formed a re-use committee assigned to solicit input from the community and draw up a list of options for the old building's new vocation.

"(The YMCA) will only leave knowing that this building is a viable part of the community," said Paula Lampton, who's co-chairing the committee along with United Way executive director Kathy Hall.

Here are some of the ideas being kicked about:

u Residential areas expanded to accommodate families who have fallen on hard times or individuals in transition, who may be moving to the area or going through a divorce.

u Executive hotel, office suites and gym.

u School space and residential hall for Frostburg State.

u Offices for nonprofit agencies, which could cut costs by using shared office equipment, meeting rooms, telephone receptionists and such.

Committee members aren't placing limits on ideas, which is good, and they don't seem adverse to stirring the pot to generate community reaction, which is better. Some ideas may be more controversial than others, but at least they'll get people talking and, hopefully, thinking.

The first idea that pops into my head is an expansion of the YMCA's daycare facilities to further benefit single moms who can't cost-effectively hold a job because of child-care costs.

For fledgling welfare reforms to succeed, a woman must be able to work without child-care costs eating up a serious chunk of her take-home pay.

The Y can't be expected, nor would it be financially able, to dish out cheap child care right and left, but state lawmakers might recognize both a need and an opportunity.

Hagerstown, with its legion of Section 8 housing, is home to lots of vehicle-less women. To them, the price of landing a job is not only the loss of state benefits but the expense of daycare.

But what if, within walking distance, you had a place where they could leave their kids and a credit-card processing satellite center, or something similar, in one of the city's old hotels - lured there by tax credits, cheap rent or other incentives.

Suddenly, people whom we've sworn at and treated as throw-away pieces of society could become the backbone of a regenerated downtown. Lawmakers might see a chance to make Hagerstown a model of urban renewal planted on the shoulders of welfare reform, of all things.

A pipe dream? Sure. Maybe. But I get the impression the YMCA re-use committee is willing to hear out a dream or two. Some seed might take root.

The location of the building makes its re-use even more important, sitting as it is on the border between downtown and the state-targeted HotSpots high-crime area.

One of the stated reasons for the Y's move was the neighborhood. As the HotSpot initiative works to bring some sanity to the streets, the Y building needs to be firmly footed as a neighborhood asset used frequently by people who still think of sidewalks when they hear the word crack.

I'm convinced it's only a matter of time until Jonathan Street no longer conjures up images of out-of-state drug dealers and the crime that comes in tow.

The YMCA building can be an anchor in that struggle, particularly if it involves the people who live in the surrounding neighborhoods and their children.

At this point though, there really isn't a wrong use for the building - just so long as it's used. Anyone with ideas or comments should mention them to Candace Lightner or Mike Flicek over at the YMCA.

If they don't laugh at my idea, I can basically guarantee they won't laugh at yours.

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