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Fairgrounds would make a good marketing tool

March 18, 2002|BY BOB MAGINNIS

Hagerstown's 68-acre Fairgrounds Park, now a lovely piece of open space with lush playing fields, a walking trail and even an in-line hockey rink, might just as easily have become a housing development.

The Agricultural and Mechanical Association of Washington County had run the Great Hagerstown Fair for more than 100 years, but when the money the state provided for the sale of the fair's horse-racing dates ran out, the property was sold.

The property owner ran into financial problems and the land was sold again in 1992, to the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation, also known as CHIEF.

But as of May 1996, the city had done nothing to move the project forward and Merle Elliott, CHIEF's president, announced it was time to get things rolling.

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"The foundation will be patient with any plan that's a plan. We've got to get moving," Elliott said.

Then-mayor Steve Sager's administration responded to Elliott's gentle nudge and by September of that year, they had decided that the land would be used for recreational purposes only.

More than five years later, the old fairgrounds has been transformed, according to Karen Giffin, the city's community relations director, because of more than $150,000 in cash and services donated by local citizens and companies.

Topping the list is a $100,000 pavilion donated by Citicorp Credit Services. The Citi Pavilion, as it will be known, includes restrooms, a concession area and score-keeping equipment.

The Hagerstown Softball Association gave $20,000 for another pavilion and other donors, ranging from Home Depot to Oswald Nurseries, have paid for everything from trees to playground equipment.

The city also worked a five-year deal with Coca-Cola that gives the city with $7,500 a year cash, $25,000 worth of marketing assistance and a 25 percent commission on vending revenues.

The place looks great, but according to Giffin and Rodney Tissue, the city engineer, the project isn't done yet.

"We're working on a proposal to have a skate park," Tissue said, adding that if the mayor and council approves, it would have slopes and half-pipes for skateboarders. Insurance is a big issue, however, he said.

The city would also like to find someone to purchase portable bleachers, which would cost about $14,000, to accommodate spectators at some of the games that will be played there.

And the city would like to add an "Acoustic Music Performance Pavilion," Tissue said, for small concerts. It could be another site for unamplified groups at the Blues Fest, perhaps. Design work on that would cost $4,500.

The city is also looking for sponsors for the six scoreboards needed on the various ballfields at a cost of $8,000 apiece, Giffin and Tissue said.

If you haven't got that in petty cash, the two say that you can still help, by purchasing with a brick engraved with the tasteful message of your choice, for $30 to $35, depending on the number of lines, up until May 15. A variety of trees, for $200 apiece, can also be donated.

For more information on all of these programs, you can contact Giffin at City Hall at (301) 739-8577, ext. 116, or by e-mail at hagerstownmd.org.

I have long believed that the redevelopment of the fairgrounds could spur a revival of the city's East End, which has some very nice older homes, but which has seen better days.

The city council ought to consider extending its proposed tax credits for renovation and conversions from multi-unit apartments to single-family homes to the streets that surround the fairgrounds.

Then persuade real estate salespeople to market the combination of affordable homes with tax breaks for fixing them up and proximity to 68 acres of recreation.

The target audience will not be people in Spring Valley, Holiday Acres or Van Lear, but people being priced out of places like Frederick County, people who can see possibilities instead of just what's there now.

Hagerstown, with its high concentration of renters, needs homeowners with cash to invest and money to spend. Such people, living within walking distance of downtown, could be advocates for better city services and supporters of downtown businesses.

What I'm suggesting is that now that the fund-raising efforts of Giffin and company have given the city something to show off, it doesn't make sense not to use it as a tool to bring new money and new people to town. Instead of asking people to purchase a tree, maybe the city should ask for some donations to advertise in metro-area papers' real-estate sections.

None of this is meant to diminish the city government's accomplishments. But some of us who remember the years when little or nothing happened want this jewel shown off to those who could be its new next-door neighbors.

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

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