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Downtown in retreat

January 08, 1999

With plans proceeding for a another major shopping center on the western edge of Hagerstown, are the merchants of downtown Hagerstown:




- Scrambling to revitalize their promotion organization so they'll lose as little business as possible, or

- Trying to kill it, because 14 years after the Downtown Assessment District was organized, the idea that investing a few pennies in joint marketing and promotions is still held in the same low regard as witchcraft.

In late October, the developer of the Centre at Hagerstown, to be located at the corner of Interstate 81 and U.S. 40, announced that the 550,000-square-foot center would include Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Dick's Sporting Goods, Border's Books, Marshall's, Circuit City and Office Max, among others.

That line-up would cover just about anything available downtown, unless you've got business at one of the banks' central branches or at the courthouse. But the merchants whose livelihoods are at risk don't see it that way, recommending that the city dissolve the group formed 14 years ago to help downtown compete with the malls.

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A portion of mall tenants' lease payments goes to fund promotional efforts which tenants are required to participate in. Malls also require stores to keep uniform hours and provide security for patrons there.

Wouldn't it be wonderful, city officials thought, if downtown merchants could have those same advantages by forming an association of their own? But then the mayor and council made what was probably a fatal mistake. To avoid a battle with property owners, they levied the tax on the businesses themselves. And with the little bit that it brought in - less than $30,000 a year - the association invested in promotions like the infamous Hager-Fest - that brought people downtown without increasing merchants' take.

Marketing works; just ask anybody whose kids just had to have a "Furby" for Christmas. There's no doubt that with the right approach (and a little less whining by those the program is designed to help) it could work downtown. But times will apparently have to get a little bit tougher first.

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