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bob maginnnis 2/4/01

January 31, 2001

Top issues in the city race



With the passing of the Jan. 26 filing deadline, the 2001 Hagerstown city election campaign has officially begun. Seventeen council candidates and three mayoral hopefuls will contend for the honor of guiding the city during the next four years.

Interviewed after he filed for mayor, Councilman Bill Breichner said there are no "red hot issues," adding that "we haven't had people stomping in the streets."

No, citizens are not riled up in the way they were when a previous council tried to sell off the Municipal Golf Course in 1988, but to say there are no hot issues would be a mistake. Here's my hit parade of the issues that should dominate this campaign:

- The new University Systems of Maryland campus that Gov. Parris Glendening decided to locate in downtown Hagerstown, after some lobbying by former mayor Steve Sager. Unfortunately, the governor's budget provides only $13.3 of the $15.3 million university officials estimate it will take to turn the old Baldwin House complex into a new downtown learning center.

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And a $4.4 million request for additional parking and open space was left out altogether. I've heard the argument that there's plenty of parking downtown already and that college students don't mind walking a bit. Most of the people saying such things are men who don't have a woman's fear of being attacked or having their purse snatched after leaving a late-evening class. And it will only take one such incident to do irreparable damage to the center's image. Campus parking must be plentiful, close in - and secure.

To accomplish this, the council must not only lobby to get state money in future budgets, but also be ready to issue a bond to do the work if it's not. This project is too important to do on the cheap.

- The crime issue. Washington County's Capital Improvement Program now includes $2.6 million to create quarters for a fifth circuit court judge. In January Administrative Judge Fred C. Wright III said that though the county is 10th in population statewide, it ranks sixth in criminal cases. That's because the county is at the crossroads of two interstate highways, bringing drug dealers in from the north and south.

Election time is traditionally when the Hagerstown police force gets extra manpower, but Chief Arthur Smith isn't asking for it yet, although he acknowledges "any department can use more people."

Smith is reorganizing the department to get all the sworn officers he can out of the office and on the street. Once that process is complete, he said he'll look at how well the department is coping and see if there's a need for another drug unit.

Smith said that the department is in the third phase of a fairly aggressive campaign against the drug trade, a campaign which seems to be working. And yet he doesn't want to get too optimistic, saying that "things can look a whole lot better in January than they do in June."

My gut feeling is that even after the department is reorganized, Smith will need some extra troops, in part to provide foot patrols so people will feel secure enough to invest in the older parts of the city. The current council was in denial for a while about the problems faced by downtown residents, but the next group must be ready to add police if Chief Smith says he needs them. The other choice is to wave the white flag.

- And speaking of waving the white flag, for the more than 25 years I've been observing Hagerstown, the city has approached the owners of rental property on bended knee. Even now, at a time when property values downtown are stagnant, the city investigates code violations only when there's a complaint.

It's time for a rental-inspection system, which would not only force owners to keep up their properties, but which might also inspire them to choose their tenants with more care. Not all landlords are bad people, but there are enough who don't care who they rent to, or what illegal activities their tenants engage in, to make life miserable in some neighborhoods. If you're against rental inspections, you're for the landlords who care more for a buck than they do about the quality of life in the city.

- Economic development. As part of their strategic planning meeting this week, the Hagerstown/Washington County Economic Development Commission discussed how they could "support the City of Hagerstown in the creation of a thriving urban area."

One suggestion: Move Deborah Everhart of the city's Planning and Economic Development Department to the county EDC offices, where she'd be among development professionals as opposed to being the only one in her shop concentrating on that. Another possibility: Do an inventory of downtown buildings (if it hasn't already been done) to determine what's historic, what should be saved and what can be torn down.

Whatever happens, downtown needs foot traffic, some of which will come from the new campus. The council needs to get others to follow the lead of developer Dick McCleary, who's done a number of downtown renovation projects. His secret: He doesn't cut corners and he treats tenants right. He may not be the only one who does so, but he's a good example the city should use to inspire others.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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