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tim rowland 12/3/00

December 01, 2000

For public works to work, timing is everything



There has to be a happy middle ground.

Several years ago the City of Hagerstown built a skating rink in less time than it takes to freeze an ice cube.

There was rumored to be a study that proved demand for the rink, but the City decided it knew best, and what was best was not to release it to the public - really, we're such children, we couldn't possibly handle a grown-up document like a consultant's report.

Then the City got into a race with the town of Waynesboro, Pa., under the presumption that an ice rink with the unlikely name of Doris I. Billow would somehow pound it into the ground if we didn't cut our ribbon first.

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Bless us, we won the race. We showed Doris I. Billow. And we also showed ourselves.

There's no sense recounting the rink's financial woes over the last few years, although the rink has suffered a lot more abuse than it's deserved.

I believe the rink was and remains a good idea. Its problems - aside from some early-on management issues - were twofold.

First, it was sold to the public as a potential money maker.

Please. Might as well build a new library and sell it to the public on the idea that it will turn a good profit.

Government projects, be they schools, highways, community centers, parking decks, bus lines, swimming pools or skating rinks, do not earn money, nor should they be expected to. They are services that governments decide will positively affect enough people in the community so as to justify spending a few tax dollars.

When the ice rink was sold as a money-maker, it was set up to fail. So today when the public thinks of the rink it doesn't see the thousands of happy skaters, child and adult alike, it thinks of red ink, white lies and white elephants.

The second problem is that it was built too fast.

Ground was broken before the people and press could study the numbers and ask the appropriate questions. There was no time to assemble proper management plans or figure out a proper chain of command and accountability.

All things considered, it's amazing the rink is still standing.

Now consider that there were plans for a new Minor League baseball stadium before the ice rink ever showed up on the city's radar.

This week, perhaps the final cleats were hammered into the stadium's coffin when two of its key boosters all but pronounced the project dead.

Why? The project gestated for too long.

If we'd moved on the stadium when it was first proposed at something like $8 million, not only would it have been built by now, but a good chunk would have been paid for by now.

But leaders wouldn't lead, councils, commissions and delegations wouldn't vote and everyone got caught up in the most unrelated and irrelevant of details. (My personal favorite: We can't build a stadium because we might have trouble selling industrial lots on the property next door. Ooookaay).

Then we went through the sweetener phase. It wouldn't be a stadium, it would be stadium/business park. It wouldn't be a stadium, it would be a stadium/convention center. It wouldn't be a stadium, it would a stadium/soccer field complex. Don't call it a stadium, it's a stadium/railroad museum. Oh wait, make that stadium/museum/athletic complex.

I was running out of slashes. Everyone wanted to be all things for all people. Sen. Don Munson even said he wouldn't even think of supporting the stadium unless it could be guaranteed that the North-South football game be played there each year. At which point stadium supporter Dick Phoebus - who looked at that point as if he'd opened the door to the committee room and discovered himself on the planet Neptune - removed his glasses and said incredulously "Don - it's a baseball field."

The whole process seemed underwater, in super slow motion. I felt like Hunter S. Thompson. Everytime I sat down to write about the stadium, things got weird. How weird? In the end, the person I found myself agreeing with was developer Vincent Groh, who wanted to trade his site on the interstate and Salem Avenue for the old stadium. The problem was, that would have made too much sense.

So what have we learned? Not much. Except that if we could have slowed the ice rink project by half and doubled the pace of the stadium project we might have had a couple of pretty decent community improvements on our hands, constructed with half the grumbling and resentment.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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