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Friendship park best site for UM campus

May 27, 1999

Before I'd said 10 words, I could tell former mayor Steve Sager was angry when he called Monday. He hadn't read Monday's editorial, though he said somebody had read it to him and the time stamps on the faxes he's sent me were testimony to the fact that he'd been up all night.

The former Hagerstown mayor is a man on a mission - to bring the proposed University of Maryland Systems campus downtown, to the old Baldwin House, though many clearly favor the location already chosen in Allegheny Power's Friendship Technology Park, across interstate 70 from Martin L. "Marty" Snook Park.

Will he be successful? Not if success depends on persuasion and diplomacy. He talked to me as he usually does, like a teacher with a huge collection of indisputable facts talking to a dense child in need of instruction, a child who will never know as much as the professor does.

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No doubt Sager is correct when he says the Baldwin House can be renovated more cheaply than something new can be built. A study of renovation costs versus new construction discussed at a recent open meeting of the Washington County Historic Advisory Committee said as much. The real question, as one proponent of the project told me, is: What do the prospective students, the customers of this new facility, want to do?

The center at Shady Grove, which this facility is modeled on, attracts mostly night students, business people who've already put in a full day before they come to class. It is as posh as any modern office building, with touches like desktop plugs for laptop terminals, so students can download the professor's notes from the screen.

Will such students come downtown at night? They do now, says Sager, who's a member of the local Frostburg Center's advisory board. He noted that the center's fall semester enrollment was a record 446 students. Frostburg has talked about extending its lease and perhaps even buying the building, he said.

But you can see, I said to him, that if the new campus is built, how attractive it would be for Frostburg to leave behind the current worries about maintenance and parking and just be responsible for running programs. That would also be possible if the Baldwin House is renovated, he said, noting that all over the country, there are universities and colleges located in downtown areas.

But where his argument falters is on the matter of job creation. At Allegheny's Friendship Technology Park, the campus would be a magnet for other high-paying industries whose employees need university training. To that, Sager said that a campus downtown would draw other businesses, too, but pressed on what types they would be, he said they would be of the retail and restaurant variety.

That's why I favor the Friendship Technology site, even though, to the chagrin of some in the community, it would help Allegheny Power make money. If they make a few bucks (or even a lot) and draw the kind of jobs we lack here now, I don't begrudge them the money.

Allegheny Power officials also told me that utilities are on site now, and the 20-acre parcel they're donating is adjacent to Sterling Road, so opening the campus won't require any major road-building project.

Other points:




- Sources close to the project tell me it was originally proposed for Frederick County, and that local boosters persuaded university officials to bring it here instead. Shifting the project from a more densely populated area to one with fewer people would seem to argue in favor of an interstate location, to make it easier for out-of-county residents to attend.

Isn't that why Hagerstown Suns' owner Winston Blenckstone wants an interstate location, and why Mayor Bob Bruchey supported it earlier this year?

Both Bruchey and Sager need to reflect on the fact that with their own support of out-of-downtown development on Wesel Boulevard and the Center at Hagerstown, they've encouraged people to go someplace other than downtown. Should they really be surprised that the university wants the same easy access for its students that retailers do for their customers?

- The Baldwin House proposal, which wasn't on the radar screen until Frostburg began suggesting that it might shift some of its classes out of downtown, wasn't discussed with developer Don Bowman, who's working on a proposal for that site even though a previous council rejected his plan. How many times can the city slap him in the face?

- Finally, I asked Sager what he would do if the steering committee reviewed all the sites and still rejected the city's proposal. Would he abandon the quest for the good of the community, or keep on fighting?

"What about state law?" he asked. But even Ron Young in the Maryland Planning Office, isn't saying the Friendship Technology site would violate the state's "Smart Growth" law. What I fear, along with County Commissioner William Wivell, is that a prolonged political battle may scuttle this project.

For the good of the community, Sager should take his best shot, but if he loses, he ought to fold his tent, or better yet, help in the fund-raising effort. Otherwise, he may be remembered as the guy who chased the University of Maryland back to Frederick.

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

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