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Can city take a leap of faith?

July 02, 1999

For the past seven years I've been writing in support of a Civil War-themed museum for downtown Hagerstown. It makes sense on so many levels, I'm surprised it's taken someone this long to bring a serious proposal forward.

In case you missed those earlier columns, here's my pitch:

Tourism is a clean industry. People come to visit and spend money, but don't expect you to educate their children or provide other expensive municipal services. Interest in the Civil War is still high and Hagerstown is a convenient jumping-off spot to other significant historic sites like the Antietam Battlefield and Harpers Ferry.

A museum here would also provide some financial justification for the city's requirement that developers downtown renovate to historic standards. A few museum visitors might be inspired to return and do some renovations of their own.

But there's a catch, and it's a big one. The tab for this museum would be $30 million, or about $25 million more than the Civil War Medical Museum in Frederick. Imagine that a man who's been dreaming about a modest meal - a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup, perhaps - is suddenly presented with a six-course gourmet dinner. In both cases, the key question is: Is it too much to swallow?

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The first thing that suggests that this project is more than pie in the sky is the involvement of Dennis Frye, the dynamic local historian who spearheaded the three-day 1997 project to re-enact the Battle of Antietam. Any event that features a performance by more than 5,000 people, with twice that many spectators, is fraught with peril. But it was a big success, due in no small part to Frye's ability to sell, organize and work without sleep.

For the museum project, Frye and others formed the Antietam Creek Coalition, Inc., assembling a group with impressive credentials. They include the exhibit designers for the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the visitors center at Monticello (Thomas Jefferson's home), the bond counsel for Colonial Williamsburg and the general contractor for the American Airlines Flight Museum.

Their vision involves taking the old Baldwin House and gutting it, preserving only the facade while turning the inside into a state-of-the-art museum with the environmental controls to protect the Civil War artifacts they're hoping will be loaned by the Smithsonian Institution.

But that's not all. To provide easy access from Washington and Franklin streets, they would demolish buildings there to create wide entrances to an inner courtyard where buses would unload and another parking deck would be built. Wall Street investors would provide the capital, but local government has been asked to kick in $100,000 in planning money.

If successful, the project would attract thousands to the city every day, necessitating things like extra police and hospitality training so museum visitors who ask the waitress who serves them lunch what else there is to see in town will get more than a blank stare. As I said earlier, a sandwich we could manage, but this would be quite a mouthful more than that.

Are there good reasons to try? Yes. In addition to my previous arguments in favor of tourism, this is probably the last chance for to save the Baldwin House - and to put together a project that would bring substantial foot traffic downtown. Still, the city council (at least the members I could reach) is cautiously optimistic, in part because that request for planning money.

The most enthusiastic, Susan Saum-Wicklein, worked closely with Frye to bring the headquarters of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites here.

"It's much better than a 50-50 chance this thing will come off. It enhances the concept of an arts and entertainment center. If all the stars align, there's a good chance this will come to fruition," she said.

Councilman Lewis Metzner was more reserved, saying he is "not opposed to it, but not on board yet."

The sticking point for him is the request for $100,000. As other people in City Hall have said to me, developers usually come in with the plan Frye's group wants government to finance already done.

Councilman Alfred Boyer said he still has questions because of the city's tight budget, but realizes that it's time to either find a way to make this project work "or tear it (the Baldwin House) down and start fresh."

Councilman Wallace McClure agrees, saying that if the project came together, it would be "one of the most exciting things that could happen, but if it doesn't work, that building needs to go. The museum in conjunction with what (developer) Don Bowman could do may be the last best hope for that building."

Councilman William Breichner wasn't available for comment and Mayor Robert Bruchey was out of town.

If not this, then what? Given the city's recent history with speculative projects - First Urban Fiber and the ice rink - it will take a leap of faith to commit the cash, even if county government splits the bill. But the alternative - just hoping something will turn up - seems worse. Let's take that leap.




Bob Maginnis is the Opinion Page editor for the Herald-Mail

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