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Board would be perfect downtown fit

June 17, 1999

As expected, the 22-member steering committee looking at sites for a University of Maryland campus for Washington County on Wednesday decided to back the Friendship Technology Park proposal, dashing the hopes of those who saw the campus as a way to fill the old Baldwin House and stimulate interest in downtown at the same time.

Despite this setback, there's a group of dedicated downtown business people pushing another option for downtown - the shift of the Washington County Board of Education offices from Commonwealth Avenue to downtown.

The idea began last summer when Superintendent Herman Bartlett Jr. said that school officials has considered renovating the old offices, the first section of which was built in 1938, but had determined it would be throwing "good money after bad."

Bartlett's comments surprised board members B. Marie Byers and Edwin Hayes, both of whom agreed that the old offices needed work. But, said Hayes, Bartlett's comments were just to "open the discussion."

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Nothing much was said until this past February, when a group putting together a plan for an arts and entertainment district on South Potomac Street in downtown included the shift of school board offices to downtown as one possible way to enhance development of that district.

Moving a government office from the suburbs to the city would not be unprecedented in Hagerstown. The Department of Social Services was moved from Maryland Avenue to the old Woodmen of the World Building on North Potomac Street, while the Maryland Job Service was shifted from Antietam Street to the Elizabeth Hager Center on Public Square.

Tom Newcomer, owner of R. Bruce Carson Jewelers on Public Square and a member of the chamber's downtown task force, said that in an attempt to build on the spirit of cooperation between the city and county, "a couple of us have tried to encourage the move of the Commonwealth Avenue offices downtown."

Newcomer said that the board could assist with developer Don Bowman's plan to renovate the Baldwin House, because although Bowman plans to put retail space on the lower floors, he needs office tenants upstairs to make the numbers work.

"To me, it would be a low-cost way to have a new facility for them," he said.

Jim Pierne, co-chair of the group that did the arts and entertainment district report and vice president and CEO of F&M Bank, said the school board office shift is "something that has been talked about. They're kind out of out of space where they are."

If such a move could be put together, Pierne said, "It would put a good group of people downtown."

Everything is in the discussion stage now, Pierne said, but "if there's a way we can meet their needs downtown, I'd love to potentially see something like this, that is, if it would make sense, financially and otherwise."

Deborah Everhart, the city's economic development coordinator, said that the shift of school board offices downtown "has been an interest of ours for some time now, though not necessarily for the Baldwin House."

But Everhart said the city hasn't held any detailed discussions with the school board yet and noted that "It's a budget issue for the county as well."

Though other space has been considered for school board offices, Everhart said it would help with Bowman's proposal, because, as Newcomer noted, while Bowman wants retail on the ground floor, he'd still have 30,000 square feet worth of space to find tenants for upstairs.

"But it's only been discussed conceptually so far," Everhart said.

The pluses for this proposal are:

- As noted, government agencies have been moved downtown twice previously, and more recently, the Maryland District Court was convinced to build a new facility downtown, instead of at a site along Wesel Boulevard.

- Because the city looked at competing proposals by Baldwin Development and a partnership that including architect Kurt Cushwa, local builder Mike Callas and developer Stan Keyser back in 1995, city government has plenty of detailed information about what's needed to renovate the structure.

- School board employees would be closer to their counterparts in city and county government, and Superintendent Bartlett could follow through on his early resolve to attend more county commissioner meetings.

- School board employees who commute to downtown every day (as opposed to college students coming from here, there and everywhere) could make arrangements to carpool, cutting down on the number of parking spaces needed to accommodate them, and

- Top educators working downtown could act as advisors and committee members as the city continues development of the arts and entertainment district.

Finally, this proposal would demonstrate that the county government is truly interested in assisting the city's effort to renovate downtown. Maryland government has stepped up twice and found new uses for downtown buildings that were in disrepair. Now it's county government's turn.




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

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