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Snubbing Bruchey: A mistake to avoid in the future

June 04, 1999

Hagerstown Mayor Bob Bruchey stopped by The Herald-Mail last week to emphasize that even though he plans to give the proposal to put a University of Maryland Systems campus downtown "our best shot," his top priority is seeing it located somewhere in Washington County.

"I won't do anything to jeopardize that," Bruchey said, a position endorsed the next day by former mayor Steve Sager.

But anyone who assumes that this agreement to act in everyone's best interest means the city and its concerns can be brushed aside would be mistaken. Treating Bruchey with disrespect is not only a risk to this project, as we've seen, but could cost the two governments the opportunity to work together in other areas.

For example, it is time for business and civic boosters to put the same kind of energy into revitalizing the city as they're putting into bringing the campus here. It's something that's not going to happen without government intervention, much as we'd like it to. Some things need jump-starting, as we saw on the northeast corner of Public Square, where storefront sats vacant for years before the Sager administration puty together a package to renovate it.

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With a governor who espouses "Smart Growth" - an anti-sprawl initiative that encourages redevelopment of older, urban areas - Hagerstown should be getting a pile of state grant funds for things like low-interest mortgage money. But politics being what it is, it won't happen without a lot of lobbying by Washington County's delegation of the General Assembly, which needs to be pushed harder to perform on local issues.

The business community consistently lets these folks off the hook on these matters, acting as if it wouldn't be polite to publicly question why (for example) Frederick got $750,000 for its Civil War Medical Museum, a facility that's already open) and Washington County got only $150,000 in planning money for the new UM campus.

With city tax revenues flat (and likely to stay that way for a couple more years) the two governments also need to work together to develop a new city business park that would draw new jobs and revenues. Bruchey's proposal for a combination baseball/stadium business park along Salem Avenue and Interstate 81 didn't fly, but what if all the parcels were reserved for business development?

Why should the county government help the city? There are at least three reasons, including:

- Bruchey's constituents get no benefit from the millions in general fund money the county is putting into its sewer system, in violation of established practice. A leader who was more interested in scoring points than in getting along would have filed suit by now, casting the county commissioners as the bad guys who make it impossible to cut city taxes.

- On the sewer issue, as state officials have pointed out, the county has excess capacity while the city is preparing to spend money to add capacity. Working together seems like a natural, and the two governments have already negotiated one small project. Barring an influx of manufacturers who need a lot of sewer service and who don't expected discounted hook-up fees, cooperation with the city may be the county's best hope for solving its debt problems, and

- Drawing economic development to the county will be easier if the central city is a lively place, with a couple of what are called "destination attractions" - museums, for example - that capitalize on the area's Civil War history. The state's already done a study of how such a facility might be tied in with a convention center/conference facility. Might we lure more conventioneers here if there was more for them to see when they got here?

Bruchey told me last week that in his view, when the county needs the city's help, the city is expected to do its part, but when the crisis is over, it's like the city is an island, separate and apart from the county.

Some of this feeling is based on some missteps by the comissioners - not inviting Bruchey on their' bus tour of Maryland University's Shady Grove facility still sticks in his craw. But as I've seen in my two decades here, the failure of governments to cooperate has consequences that are greater than the hurt feelings of elected officials.

Many times, these failures to communicate can measured in real dollars. Unlike his predecessor, who always seemed in total command of the facts and impervious to change, Bruchey at least listens as if your argument might alter his view or at least add to his store of knowledge. It's a valuable quality and one the commissioners and the business community should think twice about before they allow it to harden into something else.




Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of the Herald-Mail newpapers

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