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Advice for Ranson: Avoid this example

June 13, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

This week officials in Ranson, W.Va., announced that they've received a $312,500 grant to beautify Mildred Street, the city's main road. The project will complement a $1.3 million revitalization of Charles Town, W.Va. that will replace sidewalks and add a number of amenities like street benches and new street lamps to the historic town.

But if lasting revitalization is the goal, if will take more than bricks and mortar to make it a success, as the example of Hagerstown so aptly proves.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal's "Manager's Journal" column, John L. Gann Jr., a consultant who assists downtown areas with revitalization programs, said that to capitalize on renovations that make a downtown area more historic-looking, there actually has to be a program to bring tourists downtown.

In Hagerstown, the downtown area was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, forcing property owners who wanted to renovate to comply with a whole new set of rules. But the city failed to implement a program to draw people to downtown in a way that would allow property owners to recoup the costs of those renovations.

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Nor did Hagerstown deal with those owners who didn't want to renovate, or even keep their properties in good shape. Although many other Maryland cities have enacted programs to regularly inspect rental and commercial properties, Hagerstown hasn't. And so if anyone with an interest in history found their way to Hagerstown, they might be turned off by the dilapidated condition of many of its buildings.

And so to recap, to succeed, downtowns need destination attractions. Once these were retail stories, but because of the malls and the strip shopping centers, they must now be museums and exhibitions that capitalize on the historic nature of the downtown. And it's important to do both things together - the renovation and the tourism development.

Like a child who grimaces when asked to take a spoonful of medicine, Hagerstown has resisted this prescription. But if anyone doubts that a pill of some sort is needed, visit downtown Hagerstown and observe the patient's distress.

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