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Hagerstown offers hospital a tempting site, but it may not be enough

July 21, 2002|by TIM ROWLAND

David Russo has probably seen better summers. A candidate for state delegate, the courts intervened in his district, and now, instead of facing a potentially weakened winner of a Chris Shank-Bob McKee slugfest, he has to take on Shank head-on.

Then the City of Hagerstown unveiled its proposed site for a new Washington County Hospital, a city block that just happens to include Russo's pharmacy.

"When they first started talking about (relocation) I looked around and thought that this would be the perfect site," said Russo, who is taking it far more philosophically than I ever could. "It's advantageous for the city, it's advantageous for the hospital - it's just not advantageous for me."

At least it would, once and for all, solve the city's little Mulberry Street Tavern problem.

Architecturally speaking, this may be about the least damaging block the city could have picked - although I may stand to be corrected by the city's historical interests.

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The city appears ready to condemn what it has to condemn to make room for the new hospital, if indeed one is built. The other two proposed sites are one adjacent to Hagerstown Community College, and the other in the home-to-cows-forever Allegheny Energy Technology Park.

Before going further, just a quick, one-paragraph game of what-if. As in, what if the community had agreed to build the Maryland university system campus at HCC instead of downtown? A community college, a university branch with medical programs adjacent to a major hospital sounds like a dream too good to be true. And for Washington County, of course, it was.

Because of its significantly non-profit status, the city doesn't make much tax money off of the Washington County Hospital, but it is the city's fifth largest water customer, its second largest electricity customer and its top sewer customer. All told, the hospital pays close to $1 million to the city each year for utilities.

More importantly, a number of private (tax-paying) medical support services surround the hospital and would probably follow it out of town. Potentially that would be as big an impact as the hospital itself.

As for spinoff business, it's doubtful the much-self-contained hospital has as much economic impact as its 2,134 employees might lead one to suspect. For example, Russo says the hospital "won't even let nurses come over here to get prescriptions filled."

Access is always an issue with a hospital, and buried in a largely residential neighborhood, ambulances seeking the current emergency room have to make more turns than a maze-bound mouse in search of cheese.

All that said, the Breichner Administration has probably put up one of the best locations the city could offer. There's good, or at least better, access coming off of Dual Highway, and as the first thing a westbound traveler sees upon entering the city, a new hospital complex would be a good welcome mat.

The city has a couple of other cards, that being it's prepared to offer up a better deal on utility prices, and it is possible the state could add incentives as part of its Smart Growth policy which encourages urban construction.

But homeowners in the block shouldn't panic just yet because the city site is probably a long shot. Politically, displacing a number of residents and businesses from their homes would be tough. And the hospital seems to be placing its cards in the HCC community, what with the ever-expanding Robinwood medical complex just south of the campus.

When the center was under construction, conventional wisdom - hotly denied at the time - held that the hospital itself was eventually heading for a move in the same direction.

All told, it's not a bad site. Access isn't what it would be at Allegheny Energy, which is right off the Interstate, but it would be located on the side of the county that's growing the fastest. And the city might not lose out entirely, since its borders are close by on Eastern Boulevard and annexation would be a distinct possibility.

If you look at old photos of the current hospital, you see that it was built on the town's outer, lightly populated fringes, much like the Robinwood site is today. It seems a reasonable move, but not one without questions.

First, the hospital must assess how it can lose its trauma center - at least partially for financial reasons - but still can afford to build a new facility. And as development issues keep popping up in the county, the Board of Commissioners will have to figure out how growth and traffic issues will affect the community.

Several years ago, the county unveiled as many as a dozen alternatives for a highway corridor that would connect the Smithsburg-Hagerstown artery to Dual Highway. Despite all these plans, it couldn't settle on a route, and the much-needed road remains unbuilt.

But a decision to build a new hospital or not is still a year away, so if nothing else all interested parties have time to get organized for what will perhaps be Washington County's most significant real estate deal of the young millennium.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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