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Downtown's salvation or fiasco: UM campus could be either one

December 03, 1999

I've never known an educator to be short of words, but when the cat made off with the tongue of Maryland University Systems Chancellor Donald Langenberg - who was facing the grueling task of saying something positive about building a campus in downtown Hagerstown - Gov. Parris Glendening happily stepped in and supplied the dialogue.

"The site offers everything that we need to create a first-rate learning environment while offering financial savings to taxpayers and helping revitalize downtown Hagerstown," Langenberg was said to have said in a state press release. As it turns out, he didn't. Glendening's office penned the paragraph then asked the chancellor to sign off on it.

Given a chance, in his own words, to say whether he thought the downtown site was best, Langenberg said "We will do everything we can to make it a very, very successful enterprise."

In the sporting world, this is the equivalent of a coach saying he expects his team "to be competitive."

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Well, yes. If they show up they will compete. They may lose 48-3, but they will be competitive.

Are Langenberg's words and non-words an ominous harbinger for the much ballyhooed branch campus, which state Sen. Donald Munson has called the most significant project of the generation?

Perhaps, but not necessarily.

In a battle of priorities, Glendening the educator lost out to Glendening the land-use policy wonk. For the sake of educating the people of Washington County, no one has offered a serious argument that the downtown site is better than land adjacent to Hagerstown Community College.

An oasis of learning, where two-year students can drift seamlessly into four-year programs and where lecture halls, libraries and computer labs can be shared, is so clearly superior to an urban neighborhood of bail bondsmen and barrooms that it is silly to even argue the point.

So Glendening has made a train wreck of higher education in Washington County. In exchange, the governor is wagering that a downtown branch campus will be the silver bullet that wrenches an inner city core back to vibrancy.

It's a perilous gamble - a gamble, it should be noted, from which Glendening stands to face no serious repercussions. If the grand experiment works, he's a genius. If it doesn't - well, after all, it's just Washington County.

But the governor's plan is not without its tantalizing aspects.

First and foremost, this in one dramatic swoop fixes the gaping, vacant maw of the Baldwin House, the former hotel and department store that is the single most depressing element of the downtown. The Baldwin House made shopping in Hagerstown seem like Halloween 365 days a year. The value of a solution for this elephantine firetrap cannot be overstated.

Second, they may come kicking and screaming, but the campus will draw people downtown. They'll notice some of the art shops, discover how easy it is to get to the Maryland Theatre and Washington County Playhouse and have their tastebuds rewarded by the likes of Roccoco and Twilights and the 'Stube and the Washington Spy.

Also, downtown has a significant number of young people without cars. Are they college material? The answer will be only a short walk away, and it's encouraging that Langenberg wants to tailor the school to the community by, for example, offering nursing courses to serve the downtown hospital (which, paradoxically, may for all intents and purposes be out next to HCC itself in the coming decade).

But while Glendening has given us one mammoth tool for the overhaul of downtown, much of the responsibility still lies with us, to complement the college and let it work to full advantage.

Coming from a person who lives and works downtown, parking and crime are really not the concerns they are made out to be - at least in the traditional sense.

For all the talk of moving the First Hose Company out of the Arts and Entertainment District, relocating a dive or two would do more good. Offer them a tax credit or some incentive to move a few blocks from the city center. Their patrons are well-behaved; they generally only beat up each other, but the public at large doesn't know this and they get scared.

The parking deck certainly seems sufficient, especially for the time being. Trouble is, unless you are coming from the northeast you can't get to it without going around a block or two.

It's time that all of Hagerstown's one way-mania be revisited. People entering town from Dual Highway or the Sharpsburg Pike never even see the city's main shopping district. I can't imagine there's an urban planner alive who thinks that's a good idea.

Glendening's gambit has the potential, I believe, to be more successful than most people - including Chancellor Langenberg - think. But it would be unwise and unfair to sit back and wait for the branch campus to do all the heavy lifting on its own. We owe it maybe not to Glendening, but to ourselves, to give it the best effort we can.

Twenty years from now, the governor's decision will be seen either as bold and creative, or crazy and pig-headed. Time will tell. In the meantime, it behooves none of us to root against the governor's vision.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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