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The Arts & Entertainment District: Downtown Hagerstown's next step

March 19, 1999

This past week the Hagerstown City Council and the Washington County Commissioners found something they could agree on, in concept anyway. It's the Arts & Entertainment District Plan for downtown Hagerstown, and while individual office-holders reserved the right to nit-pick some of the details, they agreed that, yes, by and large, this is a good idea.

It would basically include the stretch of Potomac Street between West Franklin Street near City Hall all the way down to the Washington County Free Library. In that area, the city would promote the "continued concentration of cultural, dining, educational and entertainment entrprises..."

Officials are raising funds so that Cy Paumier of LDR International, the firm that did the latest redesign of Public Square, can continue the streetscape's theme down as far as the library. The commissioners have said they would commit some money, but how much and to what project specifically hasn't been determined yet.

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As someone who's worked downtown for 25 years and lived on North Potomac, East Franklin and South Prospect streets, I've got to root for this project to succeed. But there's one key ingredient without which this project will surely fail - more parking.

Parking is needed for two reasons. The first is that if you want patrons to come to restaurants, movies and art galleries on South Potomac Street, you've got to make it simple for them. A new lot or parking garage behind the storefronts on the eastside of that street would not only make it easier for patrons of the arts, but would fulfill another purpose as well.

Many of the older apartment buildings in the area don't have off-street parking, which means that if you live downtown, when you come home you've got to hunt around for a space on the street. That space may be right in front of your apartment house, or a block away, but one of the attractions of the suburban apartment complexes is that they have parking lots, sometimes with assigned spaces. The developers of those complexes made that investment; now the city and those who hope to redevlop the city must invest in parking, and maybe in an attendant for the lot as well.

In saying that I disagree with Councilman J. Wallace McClure, who said during Tuesday's meeting that he actually favors eliminating downtown residential uses. I agree with Mayor Bob Bruchey II and restaurateur Charles Sekula, who favor upgraded housing downtown.

To expect all of these wonderful new amenities to survive only on the patronage of those who come from somewhere else is unrealistic. On a Friday in the dead of winter, with a threat of snow in the air, will the revitalized movie theater envisioned for downtown draw patrons from down Interstate 70, or from city dwellers who can walk (or even drive a short distance) to it?

The city needs new residents, people with disposable income who can afford to go to a movie downtown, who can afford to eat in the restauarants there and patronize the shops.

In one of the early editions of Hagerstown's annual Downtown Economic Summit, I sat in on a work group on housing and finance with then-councilman (now County Commissioner) John Schnebly. The conclusion the group came to was that those who'd find downtown an attractive place to live probably wouldn't be those who were born here, but people from more urban places, like Rockville or Gaithersburg.

Getting those people to buy property here means marketing the city to them, and providing them an incentive - lower-cost mortgage money, for example - to compensate for a longer commute and for the fact that they'll be pioneers of a sort.

Yes, pioneers. Those who come here from other areas and who persevere as homeowners while other rental properties are converted back to owner-occupied dwellings again will have to wait a while before Hagerstown becomes more like Frederick or Shepherdstown, W.Va.

To draw some of them, the city also needs to look at the possibility of helping a developer convert one of the older multi-unit apartment buildings into condominiums. A young couple who can't afford a $100,000 home and who don't want the work involved with such a place might jump at the chance to build equity in a condominium that would sell for say, $40,000.

I rehearsed all these arguments with a friend of mine who's been here more than 20 years. She was not optimistic that Hagerstown could become more like Frederick, because, she said, Frederick has so many more amenities.

My argument is that Frederick has those amenities because it drew people to live there who had money to spend. Hagerstown needs such people because, as nice as it would be to build a series of museums, galleries, etc., with free admission, the truth is that the arts and entertainment district (and downtown in general) will succeed only with an infusion of cash. Getting those who have it here should be our top priority.




Bob Maginnis is Herald-Mail's Opinion Page editor

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