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Proposal for Civil War museum a second chance for downtown

July 02, 1999

It's rare to get a second opportunity. It's rarer still when the second chance is better by far than the original. Certainly local governments haven't forgotten the lessons of five years ago, and they will jump at this new venture with energy and creativity. Won't they?

When the county lost the Civil War Medical Museum to Frederick, it was an embarrassment and what some public officials now acknowledge was a blown opportunity.

Let's hope that five years from now we aren't lamenting the mother of all blown opportunities - that we muffed the chance to land the Smithsonian nameplate on a major display of the nation's most extensive and precious collection of Civil War artifacts.

Historian Dennis Frye, who brought the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites to downtown Hagerstown, is at it again. This time the project, under the auspices of the nationally supported Antietam Creek Coalition, Inc., is of incredible magnitude and potential.

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Here's the deal: More than 90 percent of the Smithsonian's Civil War collection is in the attic, mothballed away for a lack of display space. Under the Antietam Creek Coalition's plan, the Smithsonian would effectively open an affiliate in the downtown Hagerstown Baldwin House. The $30 million cost would be paid for by Wall Street financiers.

Two points are evident:

Unlike the medical museum, or any other generic farm, aviation, war or rail museum, the Smithsonian brand name makes this project an entirely different animal. People will not drive to historic downtown Hagerstown to see a Civil War museum. But they will drive to historic downtown Hagerstown in numbers to see the Smithsonian Museum's Civil War collection.

Second, this is in all likelihood the Baldwin's best and last chance at survival. Without the Smithsonian, this historic old landmark will come down.

Historical Society forces who were so disappointed over the Roundhouse, Fox-Deceived and the Kammerer House need to realize the significance of this project and act accordingly. If they don't lobby City Hall and the County Commissioners hard to pitch in with the seed money, they won't have much of a case when they inevitably protest issuance of the demolition permit.

This seed money that local government must come up with is in the neighborhood of $100,000, which will finance the feasibility blueprint that will be shown to potential investors.

And, to be up front about it, it's a $100,000 risk. Wall Street may look at the plan and laugh. (And the Coalition needs to answer some tough questions, such as why would Wall Street investors be interested in a low-to-no-profit museum). The Smithsonian may have second thoughts about farming out its collection. We may be out $100,000 and the Baldwin House will come down anyway.

But this is a gamble you take. You take it because if successful it clearly could be the brass ring that dramatically turns downtown fortunes to the good.

This is a gamble for which you get creative and call in the chits:

The Antietam Creek Coalition is organizing as a nonprofit 501c3, meaning it's eligible for Gaming Commission money. Easily, a quarter of the funds could come from gambling taxes.

City Council member Al Boyer recently wrote an op-ed piece on how city-county relations have never been better. Good. Let's take advantage of the harmony and get the two governments to work out a plan. Stop forgetting that Hagerstown is part of Washington County.

The county apparently had the money to buy a downtown building to accommodate the ever-expanding local government. Perfect. Let's put the brakes on government expansion for a while and sink the funds into a project that will potentially generate tax money instead of spending it.

There's a letter to the editor in today's Opinion section lauding CHIEF and its warhorse Merle Elliott for their contributions to the area. What perfect timing. Now CHIEF can make up for the Kammerer House debacle and show its true, community improving colors.

The Greater Hagerstown Committee is reportedly ruffled about what it perceives as unfair, negative publicity toward the city reflected in the local media. Curious, coming from the group that just fought tooth and nail to keep the Maryland University campus from locating downtown because of so-called crime and congestion problems, but OK.

What a wonderful chance for a big, positive, front-page story when Greater Hagerstown rises out of its behind-the-scenes fretting and actually helps round up a share of the local financing. Concocting quaint theories about negative imagery is the mating call of the unimaginative. I'd like to think the people of Greater Hagerstown are better than that.

These four groups with three representatives each given two hours in one room ought to be more than sufficient to come up with a $100,000 plan.

Working together, the City Council, County Commissioners, Greater Hagerstown and CHIEF certainly have the firepower to get this done. For the sake our nation's Civil War heritage as well as for all the people who love, live and work in the City of Hagerstown, let's hope they have the willpower.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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