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Bruchey steps up to fill leadership void

January 07, 1999

A lot of citizens will argue that Washington County's most urgent need is not a new stadium for the Hagerstown Suns minor league baseball team. I'd agree, but if moving ahead on this project can help develop new leadership and better relationships between elected officials at all levels, it will be worth doing.

There is already agreement by a lot of groups, like the Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Hagerstown Committee, that a new stadium on a location visible from Interstate 81 would be good for the area. It would be another amenity, like the Maryland Theatre, that economic development officials could use to sell the area.

But until this past Monday, no one had stepped forward to head the effort. Enter Mayor Bob Bruchey, who didn't list the stadium as a major priority during his 1996 campaign (though he did like the idea of the skating rink). Despite his previous reticence on the issue, Bruchey said that within a month there'll be a meeting so local folks can "put our heads together and figure out a way to fund it."

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That meeting will be notable for two reasons: It will be the first time Bruchey has brought together a major project that didn't originate in the previous administration. But more important, if he succeeds, it could go a long way toward filling the leadership void in Washington County.

Is "void" too harsh a word to describe what exists? Maybe. The new Washington County Commissioners haven't decided for sure how many days a week they need to meet, and the Washington County delegation contains three rookies - Dels. Chris Shank and Joe Bartlett and state Sen. Alex Mooney.

Any of these - or new delegation chairman Bob McKee - may emerge as someone who through the force of their personality can get differing sides to agree.

The problem in the past was a surplus of public officials who didn't take a position on anything but the safest issues - fixing potholes or lowering taxes, for example - until a critical mass of public opinion developed.

But what we saw was that unless elected officials took a position on an issue, or at least provided constituents with some facts, the critical mass never developed. Faced with a new and different path and elected officials who don't want to lead anyone down it, citizens find it easier to oppose any change, even when that change would be beneficial for the area.

The stadium project should be an easy sell, considering that former County Commissioner Ron Bowers came up with an idea last year that gives everybody political cover - a combination stadium site/business park.

The concept allows the commissioners to truthfully say that they're not providing a subsidy for a ball club, but creating sites for new industry. And what a perk for new companies locating here - a ball park within walking distance of your site, along with visibility and marketing possibilities like, "Get in the ball game in Hagerstown by choosing a site at the Home Run Business Park."

Bruchey's task is to sell the other players on the project, by putting together a package of facts - including the positive economic impact the ball club has on the local economy - and by persuading those officials inclined to reject the idea out of hand to at least listen to the proposal first.

The advantages he brings to the task (and to the mayor's office) are those of any good salesperson. He knows how to listen, and when he has to change the deal or watch it slip away. Unlike his predecessor, who had inflexible ideas about how everything should work, Bruchey seems willing to consider the possibility that a different approach may be just as good as the one he began with.

But the mayor's real challenge will not be the stadium issue, though it will be a good warm-up for the real work to come. Bruchey or someone else in local government will soon be faced with a state mandate to cooperate with the county on the sewer issue.

J.L. Hearn, head of the state Water Management Administration, laid it out for city and county officials more than a year ago: The county's Conococheague plant was "significantly underutilized" even as the city prepared to expand its treatment plant. Future loans and grants, Hearn said, would be geared toward the most effective use of sewer.

Translation: At some point, like Boonsboro and Keedysville, which were pressed to work together on a new water system, Hagerstown and Washington County will have to work together on sewers. In September, Hearn's deputy, Dane Bauer, said the state would like to see some progress within six months.

Why should Bruchey bother? Because the city needs a financially healthy county government. If Bruchey can put together an agreement to improve the county's financial plight, he'll become the leader people turn to when a difficult project is on the table.

But first he's got to get the stadium deal done, if only to convince his fellow elected officials that later he'll be up to brokering a more difficult deal later on.




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

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