City plans big projects, but will they fly?

June 17, 2000|By DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

Hagerstown barber LeRoy Baker has seen the city go through a lot of changes in the 35 years he's been cutting hair on the first block of West Antietam Street.

"But it seems like it's going too fast now," Baker said.

It's a busy time in Hagerstown.

If all goes according to proposed plans, Hagerstown will see about $100 million in new attractions, including a baseball stadium, Civil War museum and arts center, in coming years.

"It's the busiest I've ever seen in our community, but it's also the most exciting," said Tom Newcomer, chairman of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, the driving force behind the arts center and stadium proposals.

"It's about our desire to grow and become better. ... It should make people in the community feel good about themselves," said Newcomer, who owns R. Bruce Carson Jewelers in downtown Hagerstown.


But others say the local governments can't afford to help pay for all the proposed projects.

Taxpayers would bear the brunt of the cost of the projects through contributions from the city, county, state and federal governments. Most projects also include some private funding.

"In all my time here, I've never seen so many people lined up with their hat in their hand, and I don't think we can keep filling up the hats," said Ira P. Kauffman Jr., a city councilman in the late 1970s and current council candidate who has spent most of his 67 years in Hagerstown.

"It's doomsday for the City of Hagerstown if they even try to fund one-tenth of them," Kauffman said.

Long-term plans

Some of the projects have been discussed for years.

The proposed $15 million baseball stadium and railroad museum complex grew from calls for a new stadium that began coming from the owners of the Hagerstown Suns more than four years ago.

Plans for $12 million in renovations to the former Hagerstown Fairgrounds have also been discussed for about four years.

The first phase, costing $1.2 million, is nearly complete.

Other projects are more recent.

Within the last year, plans were developed for a $46 million National Civil War Museum, the most expensive project under consideration.

And a proposed $10 million performing and visual arts center downtown was unveiled just this month.

"This has been a very sleepy town until about five years ago. Now this area is ready to explode," said City Councilman J, Wallace McClure.

Washington County Commissioner John L. Schnebly attributed the number of high-cost projects to Hagerstown's growth and a good economy.

"The community's in a transition stage from provincial to more urbanized," Schnebly said.

Schnebly and Newcomer pointed to the recent retail expansion such as the 100-store Prime Outlets and the new Centre at Hagerstown, as evidence the area is growing in all facets.

County Commissioner William J. Wivell said the economy could be a factor, but he said it's probably just a coincidence that so many major projects are being discussed at the same time.

Plans affordable?

Can all the proposed projects be done?

"I'm a firm believer that like spaghetti, you take them, throw them against the wall and see which ones stick. And right now they're all sticking," said Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II.

Others said they'd be surprised if all the proposals eventually come to fruition.

"I'd be amazed if they all succeed, but if even half succeed, that would be very good," said Newcomer. "The challenge is the cost."

"It's too much money. Where's it all coming from? Us taxpayers I guess," said Baker, while watching the ongoing construction of a $3.9 million District Court building across from his barbershop. The building is expected to be finished by Thanksgiving and is the one project that already has all its funding.

"It would all be nice. I just don't think we can afford it," Baker said of completing the other projects.

Newcomer said it "makes sense to prioritize" the projects, such as doing the $10 million arts center in phases.

"But if you look back and say you can only do one project at a time, I don't agree with that," Newcomer said.

"If each project makes business sense, it's a good investment" and should be done, he said.

Setting priorities

State Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said: "We can't possibly do all these projects at once. ... The local officials are going to have to sit down and prioritize."

Munson said the proposed arts center is high on his list of priorities because it would enhance the area around The Maryland Theatre, which he calls the "keystone to downtown."

Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, chairman of the county delegation, also said local officials must prioritize projects because, "we can't get large (state) dollars for everything."

Schnebly said the more expensive projects must be prioritized. The planned University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center, proposed to go in the vacant city-owned Baldwin House complex in downtown Hagerstown, is at the top of Schnebly's list.

The Herald-Mail Articles