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UM downtown a dead issue, but good alternatives remain

June 18, 1999

What, Wednesday's meeting of the University of Maryland branch campus steering committee didn't have enough drama for you? Weren't on the edge of your seat waiting to see whether the committee would site the campus in downtown Hagerstown or along I-70 in the Friendship Technology Park?

You're excused.

For drama, this had all the intrigue of a Final Jeopardy round between Allen Greenspan and Alec Baldwin.

Oh, did someone say Baldwin? As in House? No, that poor old gaping brick maw that eats up a significant chunk of West Washington Street's north side never had a chance.

The decision was made months ago by the People Who Matter that the university classroom building would be built in the undeveloped technology park owned by Allegheny Energy Corp.

As a late entry, Hagerstown Mayor Bob Bruchey - blood-vessel-popping miffed that he'd been left out of the decision-making process - and former Mayor Steve Sager threw the Baldwin's considerable lid into the ring.

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Submitted four months earlier, this might have been an interesting competition. But because of its tardiness, the PWM were able to brush aside the challenge and maintain critical mass for the Allegheny site.

Ideally, Maryland's classroom building would have been located next to Hagerstown Community College. But the industrial foundation CHIEF got mixed up in the potential HCC-site process and - well, you can probably figure out the rest.

As a second choice, either Baldwin or Friendship would have been good. But even though it was probably preordained, I think the steering committee made the best choice in Friendship. And you should probably know that just about everyone whose opinion I respect tells me categorically that I am wrong.

Undoubtedly the college - or anything - that would fill the city-owned Baldwin House would be a good thing. Bruchey and Sager were quite right to try. City Council members have been lunging after Baldwin solutions like hobos after a caboose for years. Convention center. Condos. Offices. Museum. They'd happily fill it with left-handed poodle groomers if they thought they could get enough Ken-L-Ration down the coal chute.

So they could be excused for drooling at the prospect of a state government-renovated, guaranteed-occupancy solution. Indeed, some believe this is the Baldwin's last significant chance for survival and a once-in-a-generation chance to strike a swift, dramatic victory in the fight for downtown viability. Further, they say that education, schematically, fits well with the arts and entertainment concept planned for the city center. And finally, downtown's Frostburg State University branch will follow the University of Maryland to Friendship, leaving half the Square empty and unsightly.

But with apologies all around, I don't think classrooms downtown are that great a deal. First, if the University of Maryland buys the property it's permanently off the tax rolls, at a time when the city desperately needs revenue.

Second, I don't think the loss of Frostburg State is the downtown death knell that people are predicting. It is a psychological and aesthetic loss to be sure, but few local merchants I've talked to say Frostburg is much of a player in the downtown economy.

A downtown populated by black-and-white Social Services, courthouses and satellite schools will plug dully along - but it will not colorfully thrive. If I'm reading the city right, its long-range planners are shooting for vibrant destinations - attractions that will draw people regionwide, people who will stop at a cash machine before twisting the knob on the parking meter.

That plan envisions art galleries and music; theater and dance; antiques in the fashion of New Market, but more reasonably priced to compensate metropolitan residents for the extra miles; notable restaurants, and for the Baldwin House a branch, not of the University of Maryland, but perhaps of the Smithsonian.

Maybe my lifelong prejudice against formal education is showing. But somehow, people running downtown after their Hamburger Helper for a 7:30 p.m. class in software design ethics and then scooting home at 10 to put the kids to bed and catch the last 45 minutes of E.R. doesn't fit with my romantic vision of a vibrant downtown.

I realize that at this point I have the gift horses' mouth propped wide, picking at every molar. But to me downtowns should promote commerce and culture. The satellite campus is critically important to our area. But it is not going to be a Georgetown. It's going to primarily be for people scrambling to catch a class on the fly to continue their education and better their lives.

These "customers," as steering committee member Bill Reuter quite correctly called them, are not shoppers or tourists. They deserve the fast access of the Interstate. And downtown deserves better too. It deserves a showpiece or two. It's a gamble, perhaps even a naive one. But it's not a half-bad way to put the best face on the steering committee's proper, if forgone, conclusion.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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