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DAD may disband

January 05, 1999|By JULIE E. GREENE

After 14 years, Hagerstown's Downtown Assessment District could be defunct by this summer if City Council members approve a recommendation to revamp the business group into an advisory board.

Although city officials had not yet seen the group's plan, three of the five council members and Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said on Tuesday evening that they favored abolishing the assessment district.

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The assessment district's board of directors voted Monday morning to recommend the council let the organization dissolve on June 30, eliminating the tax levied on businesses in the downtown district, said Karen Giffin, the city's spokeswoman.

DAD officials will discuss the matter with the council during a work session next Tuesday.

"Right now it's another disincentive for businesses in the downtown," Councilman J. Wallace McClure said during a break at Tuesday's City Council meeting.

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Councilmen Alfred W. Boyer and William M. Breichner said they also favored abolishing the assessment district.

Council members Lewis C. Metzner and Susan Saum-Wicklein did not attend Tuesday's meeting.

Several local business owners said Tuesday they favor eliminating the assessment, which taxes businesses within the district based on square footage.

"I think it is the most unfair tax that has ever been created for downtown and the Downtown Assessment District has done nothing to bring more business downtown. If anything, it created a deterrent by adding a tax," said Frank Fearnow Jr., president of Ingram's Men's Shop.

Fearnow said the promotions the district funded usually were held near Public Square and caused street closings, hindering his customers from reaching his 36 N. Jonathan St. shop.

Some people have felt alienated because they were taxed and didn't see the results the tax produced, said Lauran Clowser, the assessment district's treasurer.

DAD was viable and did good work, but a lot of people didn't see that, said Clowser, who owns the City Ballet School in the Elizabeth Hager Center.

Under the proposed restructuring, an advisory board would be created and local businesses could voluntarily help sponsor the smaller downtown promotional events such as Holly Fest and the Back To School Expo, Giffin said.

Candace Byrd, owner of Figurehead II, said she'd consider helping to sponsor such events. "Those are positive events," she said.

She said she also likes the idea of eliminating the tax, which generates about $24,000 a year for DAD's budget. This fiscal year, much of that money went to pay for a cleaning crew downtown during the summer, but in the past most of it was used for promotions, Giffin said.

Under DAD's proposal, city staff and event committees would solicit sponsorships for promotional events, she said.

The council can eliminate the district simply by not voting to renew the law that supports it, said City Clerk Gann Breichner. Creation of a permanent advisory board would require a vote by council.

If the council wants to renew the Downtown Assessment District as it exists now the council must adopt a law to do so by May's regular meeting, Breichner said. The district was created in September 1984.

The district's boundaries are roughly from Franklin Street to Antietam Street and Jonathan Street to Cramer's Alley.

Downtown businessmen Sassan Shaool and Mike Pishvaian, who owns Twilight's Ristorante and a travel agency, said the DAD tax didn't bring in enough money to make a substantial impact on the downtown.

Shaool, director of operations at Manny's Oriental Rugs, said he would like Hagerstown to look at what other cities did to make their downtowns successful and model a program after one of them.

Tom Newcomer, owner of Carson Jewelers, said DAD has done some good things, but now needs to change.

About two years ago, DAD officials wanted to change the group's mission to do more than promotions, but the previous city administration didn't necessarily agree, Newcomer said.

That led to internal struggles as DAD officials tried to determine what the group's vision should be, ultimately returning to promotions, he said.

While DAD's role didn't expand, the role of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce's Downtown Task Force grew, Newcomer said.

Promotions are important to downtown, but they are really only a "Band-Aid solution," Newcomer said.

The chamber's task force, of which Newcomer is past president, has made and continues to work on physical improvements to downtown, he said. The latest project involves working toward creation of an arts and entertainment district in the first block of South Potomac Street.

But Newcomer said it will still benefit downtown merchants to have some kind of group, such as an advisory board to the City Council, because they all face a set of circumstances unique to being downtown.

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