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UM decision deprives museum of site

December 02, 1999

Almost forgotten in all the hoop-de-doo over the site selection for a new University Systems of Maryland campus is the fact that the location chosen was also the prime choice for a proposed Civil War museum. Not to worry, says Dennis Frye, point man for the Antietam Creek Coalition.

Frye says the coalition wasn't wedded to the old Baldwin House, which will now apparently become a downtown Hagerstown campus of the University Systems of Maryland. In fact, he says, if the new museum site is near the campus there could be opportunities to share things like parking and library facilities.

But though I admire Frye for the energy and optimism that helped bring in more than 50,000 spectators and 10,000-plus re-enactors for a three-day commemoration of the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam in 1997, losing the Baldwin House is a setback for the museum project.

Why? Because the city government would have given the Baldwin House property for free to anyone with a credible plan for re-using it. After five years of inactivity and deterioration, the next step was demolition. Going to another site will mean dickering with property owners, because even if coalition members won't admit it, a U.S. 40 location is essential.

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That's because there are U.S. 40 exits on Interstates 70 and 81, to funnel tourists from the east and west into the city. A. U.S. 40 location means that after you get off the interstate, there would be only one more turn to make - into the museum's parking facility.

Using the Baldwin House would have allowed the city to create entrances to the museum complex on Franklin and Washington Streets. At one point, coalition members considered asking the city to demolish buildings facing those streets to create larger entryways, with a park-like unloading area for buses in the center.

Frye won't talk about possible alternative sites now, saying that could increase the cost of buying the property.

The campus choice, he says, "actually has little effect. It just eliminates one of our locations. It was a good location because the city owned the site, but it wasn't the only location."

Is it possible the search might lead the coalition our of downtown?

"Our absolute focus remains on downtown. In the 120 days we've got to do this plan, we're going to examine various locations in the downtown," he said.

On Nov. 23, the city government approved a contract that gives the coalition $100,000 and 120 days to do a report on possible museum locations, include cost estimates. It would also be used to seek affiliation with the prestigious Smithsonian Institution, which would presumably lend the museum artifacts from its extensive Civil War collection.

Are there other buildings downtown with enough space to accommodate what coalition members say might be a 60,000 or 80,000 square-foot museum?

"We'll have to look at some of the existing space," Frye said, adding that "we may have to combine some existing properties."

However that happens, Frye says he's optimistic that the museum and the new campus will complement each other.

For example, Frye said, there are some Civil War enthusiasts who've amassed collections of books on the conflict that number in the thousands of volumes. In some cases, their children don't want to inherit them, but they'd like to see them put to good use. What better use, Frye said, than in a university library?

The two institutions could also share any new parking structure built, Frye said, since the students will be there mostly in the evenings, while tourism's peak hours are during the day.

Course offerings might also be added to take advantage of the museum's exhibits, Frye said, creating a "new educational nucleus for Maryland."

Frye is too diplomatic - and too eager to get busy making lemonade from this lemon of a decision - to criticize the city government or the governor. But he certainly knows what should be obvious to everyone - that tourism is downtown's best chance for a sustained revival.

As opposed to the students who attend classes at this campus - a survey done in May indicated that most would be working people who'd prefer to attend classes after 5 p.m. - tourists come in their leisure time, hoping someone will provide them with a pleasant way to spend their time and money.

With some notable exceptions like the BluesFest and the Ransom of Hagerstown, which are short-term events as opposed to permanent attractions, the city government hasn't done a great job on the tourism front. Its recent commitment of $37,500 toward the museum study was a start, but one of the unintended consequences of the Baldwin House decision is that Frye's project will need more help, not less.




Bob Maginnis is Herald-Mail's Opinion Page editor.

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