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Tim Rowland 10/15/00

October 13, 2000

It's time to tell state lawmakers that they need to bring home the bacon



Twenty years ago the pre-season Philadelphia 76ers basketball team thought the odds were in its favor. Later, the season over with no championship in hand, the team promised the city "We owe you one."

Although it would never own up to any shortcomings on its part, such could have been the reprise of the Washington County legislative delegation after the 2000 session.

Huge surpluses in the state treasury made success almost a certainty, but one by one our projects went down and lawmakers wound up having to scramble to preserve preliminary funding for something the governor actually wanted as much or more than they did - the University of Maryland branch campus.

This year the state again is running a healthy surplus, and the local wish list is longer than it was a year ago, since we have new ideas along with the unfunded ideas leftover from last winter.

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There's a temptation to figure that this delegation owes us one - that since we didn't get our share this past session, we should more than make it up in 2001.

Unfortunately it doesn't work this way, and it would be unfair to the delegation to expect a Santa's sack full of goodies by the time next April rolls around.

In the city alone, four multi-million projects (not counting the Funkstown don't-call-it-a-Bypass) are jostling for position: The baseball stadium, a downtown arts center, open-space/parking at the branch campus and a Civil War museum.

If the delegation can get a foot in the funding door for two of these proposals, it will have done good work, at least as far as the city is concerned. And the city might be better off focusing on one or two, instead of asking for the funding of all four. Or as Mark Twain said, put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket.

Most realistic at this point, is the $4.4 million open space addendum to the University of Maryland branch campus. Even our delegation would have trouble blowing this one.

First, in exchange for putting the campus downtown - instead of on the outskirts where business leaders wanted it - the governor pledged to make it a showpiece. He's putting his celebrated Smart Growth initiative on a pedestal, and it won't look good for him if it fails.

Second, this is a sweetheart of business leaders, who have in the past have found success by bypassing (or is that "urban highwaying") the delegation and going directly to the governor to argue their case.

Finally, not all of the funding need be approved this year. Since the campus will be built over the next few years, open-space money can be spread across two or three sessions.

Probably the least realistic this session is the Civil War museum. It's a great idea, but it costs the most and probably has the most loose ends at this point. Short of a breakthrough announcement of partnership with the Smithsonian, it's hard to see anything outside perhaps some seed money going here.

The performing arts center is the most daring, yet intriguing proposal. At a cost of $10 million it would be a construction facelift of Potomac Street between Washington and Antietam replacing taverns with studios and stage.

Would it work? Would it bring people downtown and make Hagerstown a trendy place to be? Coupled with the university campus and a couple of private projects currently in the works, it might. But this is one of those gambles for which no one can predict the result. Unlike typical city beautification projects, this one has more purpose - to transform the city center into a home for art and entertainment.

It accentuates what is already in place, chiefly The Maryland Theatre, along with some smaller studios and galleries and good restaurants. It cleans up some eyesores. It's risky, but also has a potentially big upside at what these days has to be considered a merely moderate investment.

Like everyone else, I'm tired of the stadium talk. Even in the year that the delegation successfully put a funding mechanism into law to pay for the stadium, the plan got derailed by an amendment written by Sen. Donald Munson that spent $310,000 of our tax money on yet another consultant study. The consultants for the state stadium authority shrugged, took our money, said thank you very much, and churned out an unworkable plan that sent the whole project back to the drawing board.

Thanks to Munson's folly, we are $310,000 poorer, and have nothing to show for it.

Another problem is that this year Frederick will likely be asking for money for expansion of its own minor league baseball stadium. Competition for stadium dollars will be stiff, and remember that four of our own delegation members hail from Frederick, and it's hard to see them putting our project ahead of theirs.

It will be up to the City Council to prioritize these projects. And while it may be unrealistic to hope that the delegation owes us one and will produce, it should be up to voters to keep an eye on the delegation this winter and demand that this time we at least get our share - or elect someone who can.

Tim Rowland is Herald-Mail columnist.

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