Washington County plays tortoise to Panhandle's hare

August 11, 2000

Washington County plays tortoise to Panhandle's hare

In the "You can't win for losing" annals of state government, you would be hard pressed to find a more amusing contrast that of Hagerstown and Martinsburg, W.Va., each of which is courting a new college campus.

Predictably, Hagerstown is being accused of moving too slow.

Inexplicably, Martinsburg is accused of moving too fast.

Oh for Martinsburg's troubles.

When Hagerstown couldn't beat Martinsburg in football, we had the belittling but effective option of dropping them from the schedule. But the scores keep adding up.

The most recent embarrassment was the tale of two historical roundhouses. Martinsburg's is being turned into a showpiece. Our own impotent office holders watched catatonically as ours was reduced to rubble.


Any bets on whose bypass will be completed first, Martinsburg's or Funkstown's? Interstate 81 covers three times the distance in the Eastern Panhandle, but who would doubt that West Virginia's section will be widened to three lanes while our own lawmakers are talking about the "urgent need."

Now comes the college campuses. First Washington County couldn't decide on a site. Then once we decided on a site, we couldn't figure out what to do with the site. Now we don't know who's going to be in charge of the site. The grand opening has already been pushed back two years.

The move seems like a natural, serving both school and city interests, and Shepherd President David Dunlap seems to see no reason why they don't, in the words of Nike, just do it.

Of course unlike Washington County, the Eastern Panhandle is growing rapidly, and the state Legislature in Charleston sometimes seems to be dragged along like a child with a golden retriever on the leash.

State lawmakers, consequently, are worried Shepherd may be moving too fast, a charge Annapolis to my knowledge has never needed to levy on Washington County.

West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood is with the college on this one. Conveniently, yes, since he's in a tough re-election fight and his recent appearance in Martinsburg announcing state support for the college couldn't hurt his Eastern Panhandle vote totals.

That leaves the Legislature, for which nothing is a good idea unless it says it's a good idea, and the Martinsburg City Council, which has never had entirely easy relations with Blue Ridge developer (and potential college landlord) Moncure Chatfield-Taylor.

And no one seems to have any tangible reasons why this might not work - the central complaint is that it's all moving too fast, inspired perhaps by college expansion problems in other parts of the state. A beautifully telling e-mail from a state school governing board member to the college said "It always concerns me if ...excellent ideas...can't get traction because all the i's haven't been dotted...

"We have found in the past that if an institution lets the horse out of the barn in advance of running matters through the necessary approval steps, unnecessary difficulty and embarrassment usually results for the institution."

If an idea is an excellent one, equestrian geography should not play a part. But this is, after all, still government.

If the numbers justify the expansion, locating the school in the old outlet center shouldn't hinge on the political popularity of the landlord or which state-agency gods have or haven't been bowed to.

Of course hoops are hoops, and Shepherd will probably take the necessary steps of saying "yessir" and "how high sir" to the right people and Berkeley County will have its school.

And probably before Hagerstown.

In fairness, the Baldwin House needs more work. And the growth in the Panhandle leads the state and attracts more attention in state government, as opposed to oft-forgotten Western Maryland. But then Maryland is a much richer state.

And the issues are similar enough to highlight the ineffective, scattershot way our politicians have of doing business here. Locally, elected officials didn't put up a unified front, as we squabbled over location for the school.

Stateside, our lawmakers had zero influence with the governor, so instead of being built where it really should have, out at HCC, the college classroom building became fodder for Glendening's Smart Growth gristmill. Worse, lawmakers set back the project financially and almost lost it altogether by their bumbling, childish behavior toward the governor.

None of this will change until we elect some people who can lead. It's getting to be a tired, but consistent theme. Sure, it's comforting and no effort to vote for nice, passive chums who remember the name of your dog. But especially at the state level we are hopelessly overmatched. Sadly, this isn't football, and regarding matters such as education, transportation and culture, we can't simply drop our neighbors - with whom we are in friendly competition - from our schedule.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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