A vision, please for Hagerstown

February 26, 1999

Last month, even as developers edged closer to the start of construction of the $50 million Centre at Hagerstown, downtown Hagerstown's retailers decided to dissolve a promotion association that's been in place since 1984. Instead of the piddling tax they were assessed - 7.5 cents per square foot for first-floor space - the group will now rely on members' voluntary contributions.

If that sounds rather like General Custer throwing down his guns just as the Battle of Little Big Horn begins, it is. But the now-defunct Downtown Assessment District isn't the only city group that's marched off a cliff in the last three decades. As the city council looks at flat property tax revenues and escalating costs for police protection, let's look at how the city got to where it is now. The list includes:

- Failure to anticipate change. When Valley Mall opened 25 years ago, city officials were as surprised as if an asteroid had fallen on Public Square. But the development of the suburbs around the city was already well underway in places like Brightwood Acres and Spring Valley, and it figured that cars and shopping areas that catered to drivers would become more important.


Hagerstown's business district suffered because in contrast to places like Waynesboro, Pa., which have plenty of municipal parking, parking was at a premium until city officials finally opened a parking deck in 1986 - 12 years after Valley Mall opened.

- Failure to invest in the city. While the strip shopping centers and the suburban developers were spending on infrastructure improvements to lure customers and residents their way, the city took what seemed like forever to agree on a new design for the streetscapes, with historic-type lights.

For too many years, the measure of a Hagerstown office holder's success was whether he or she could shave a penny or two off the property tax rate. Only one politician in my memory, the late Mayor Donald R. Frush, had the vision to suggest that it might be smart to forgo revenue now - giving property tax credits to those who revovated their buildings, for example - to get more cash (and a better municipality) later.

The fairgrounds project is another example of something that languished when it should have been pushed forward. Properly done, it will be an amentity that sparks the renaissance of the city's East End. If, of course, the city can somehow replenish the pool of low-interest mortage money that ran out of in May 1998.

- Requiring some property owners to conform to historic standards without immediately linking them to tourism. If it costs extra money to adhere to such standards, then it follows that there has to be a purpose for such requirements other than "it's the right thing to do."

Yes, saving historic sites in the right thing to do, but making money with the clean tourism industry is the way to justify that investment. But while the historic district ordinance was enacted in 1987, it took until 1997 for the city to force the reorganization of the local Convention and Visitors Bureau. Great progress has been made, but the city still lacks a destination attraction downtown, such as a Civil War museum or the proposed Discovery Station science center for children.

- Allowing some property owners to let their buildings deteriorate for years. Councilman J. Wallace McClure was on the right track recently when he pushed a local property owner to fix up an abandoned house he owns.

If there were five Wally McClures on the council, the city would be better off, and perhaps there'd be fewer landlords who find it more profitable to let buildings fall down until the city government concludes (in desperation) that something must be done and buys them for more than they'd ever bring on the open market.

- Failing to build a bridge to the city's black community. With out-of-town drug dealers streaming into the city's HotSpots area, the need for cooperation between residents and police has never been greater. And yet because the lines of communication haven't been created, many HotSpot area residents are ambivalent about helping police.

None of this is to say that the city is doomed, or that much progress hasn't been made. Just look at the northeast corner of Public Square, with the Clock Building and Harry's House of Blues. And there are some great people working on ways to improve the municipality, through programs like the neighborhood association initiative.

But it's taken longer than it should have to get here, because too often in the past three decades, city officials have't provided a vision or a cause to rally 'round. As the current mayor aned council continues the work of cutting budgets, here's hoping that as they trim the numbers, they can also carve out a vision for the city's future.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers

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