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letters 4/8

April 06, 2001

Letters to the Editor 4/8



A new way of doing business for Hagerstown



To the editor:

Helen Keller, who lost her eyesight after a very early childhood illness, was once asked "What could be worse than loosing your sight?" Her reply was "Losing your vision."

As a community, we very often need to challenge ourselves in order to keep our vision. For the last decade, we have focused on our downtown and older neighborhoods, and we are beginning to see some significant progress.

It is only fitting that we keep our focus on the University of Maryland project and its open space requirements; the Arts & Entertainment concept which is designed to enhance the Maryland Theatre, and the improvements around the J.L. Boublitz District Court building and West Antietam Street.

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But, as important as these projects are, they are only a small part of the formula needed to restore our center area to meet our vision of a vibrant downtown.

A vast majority of our downtown structures are and will remain privately owned and we need to encourage that sector to become more involved in order to be successful at realizing our vision.

The city's flat real estate tax is directly related to low property assessments in our city center because of structures that are underutilized, vacant, deteriorating and abandoned. In February 1988, a portion of the downtown was designated a Preservation Design District to safeguard the city's historical heritage and quality of life. The premise at that time was that "these buildings and their setting are being maintained and reused as a viable living and business environment that is unique asset to the community." For the most part, this assumption has fallen far short. Property owners have found little value in having historic structures that cannot be reasonably adapted to meet modern business and living standards.

Unfortunately, the current belief of many in our community is that historic preservation is the major obstacle to the redevelopment of downtown. And considering the pace of progress that has occurred so far, it would be difficult to say otherwise. Overcoming the image will be fundamental to return this area to a vibrant community.

This will require the development of programs to provide tax incentives, technical assistance and a friendly permitting process that will encourage property owners to make the major investments required to meet the demands of today's business world. Just as you would not invest in any commodity without expecting some return, developers and owners of business property cannot be expected to invest in a project that does not provide a reasonable return.

Somehow we must strive to develop a compromise between development, renovation and preservation.

Another matter is the lack of building sites for new and expanding businesses. Very often we hear the complaint that the Economic Development Commission does not promote the city to potential new businesses. But old buildings in restricted neighborhoods with environmental problems, poor vehicular access for bulk deliveries, limited space for parking and expansion and neighborhood opposition are not issues that a new business wants to face.

Very often these are the same conditions causing them to seek a new site in the first place. The Hagerstown Business Park, just off Burhans Boulevard, has been a very successful development for the purpose of locating new and expanding business and increasing the city's real estate tax income. Currently, only one lot remains unsold and there are no plans for the development of additional sites. If we wish to share of the benefits of the EDC, we need to be able to offer an alternative to existing structures that are undesirable for new business prospects.

There is also a similar need in our older residential neighborhoods. Very often, making the kind of investment needed to make private and rental residential property affordable and attractive does not currently provide economic results that allow the owners to justify their financial risk.

As in the situation with business properties, residential property owners are faced with issues of lead paint, asbestos, life, safety and building codes, handicapped accessibility, the lack of parking, and undesirable slum landlords for neighbors.

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