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Hospital Rx for city?

Hagerstown officials say building a new Washington County Hospital downtown would be worth the financial sacrifice and will best

Hagerstown officials say building a new Washington County Hospital downtown would be worth the financial sacrifice and will best

August 04, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

Some Hagerstown city officials are willing to sacrifice millions of dollars in revenue and force dozens of people from their homes and businesses to keep Washington County Hospital downtown.

Others warn that the city can't afford such rich incentives.

And while Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner and all five members of the City Council believe a new hospital would best serve county residents if located downtown, others in the community disagree.

The Washington County Health System - the hospital's parent company - is considering building a new hospital that would occupy more space and allow the health system to implement new medical technology and equipment.

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Breichner and City Council members said the hospital should be built downtown to spark urban revitalization, provide centralized health care to patients countywide and keep jobs and utility and tax revenues in the city.

City officials have offered to exercise the city's power of eminent domain to take 59 properties worth about $5 million to prevent real estate snags if the hospital decides to build downtown. Eminent domain allows government agencies to acquire property for public use at fair market value. The owner can contest the acquisition in court.

City officials have offered to waive about $2.3 million in water and sewer hook-up charges if the hospital agrees to build downtown.

"We're talking peanuts" compared to the scope of the project, City Councilman N. Linn Hendershot said.

"This is major league. It's the University of Maryland project times 10. This is the biggest project of its kind in the history of Washington County," Hendershot said.

"It's worth fighting for."

At what cost?

The city might offer to pay part of the property cost, and waive up to $375,000 in building permit fees to keep the hospital downtown, Breichner said.

Hendershot would support offering the additional incentives, he said. Council members Kristin B. Aleshire, Lewis C. Metzner and Carol N. Moller would probably vote in favor of waiving the permit fees, they said.

Aleshire said he would hesitate to contribute to the property cost. Metzner said it would "take an awful lot of convincing" for him to vote in favor of spending tax dollars to keep the hospital downtown.

"I can find it a lot easier to waive a million than come up with a million from the general fund," Metzner said.

Councilwoman Penny May Nigh wants the hospital built downtown, but opposes offering large financial incentives to lure it there.

"The city doesn't have that kind of money," Nigh said.

Moller agreed that property costs might be more than the city can afford.

"We definitely want the hospital here," she said, "but we can only do so much."

Breichner said it's worthwhile to offer all the incentives because the hospital project is "so important to us as a community."

"There may be a point where we have to say the cost would not be practical, but we haven't reached that point yet," Breichner said. "We're probably pretty close to it."

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when costs will outweigh benefits without knowing the total potential revenue loss to the city if the hospital leaves and how much the hospital is willing to spend, Breichner said.

Search for sites

Hospital search committee members are in the process of selecting a preferred site so health system officials can get a better handle on the estimated costs and determine whether a new, 500,000-square-foot hospital is affordable, Health System President and CEO James Hamill has said.

Search committee members are considering 230 acres of agricultural land just east of Hagerstown Community College near Robinwood Medical Center, Allegheny Energy's 450-acre Friendship Technology Park off Interstate 70 and a two-block section of downtown Hagerstown.

The health system owns Robinwood.

Hagerstown city officials suggested the hospital be built in the block surrounded by East Franklin, East Washington and North Mulberry streets and North Cannon Avenue, with parking facilities in an adjacent block.

A new downtown hospital would be a catalyst for urban revitalization, increasing surrounding property values and attracting new development, city officials said.

The project would help downtown Hagerstown attract new business, which in turn would give the city the "large transfusion of cash" it needs to be re-energized, Hendershot said.

It would also give Hagerstown an image boost to stimulate economic development, he said.

"The perception of Hagerstown is at stake here," Hendershot said. "If the hospital moves out of the city, the perception will be that even the hospital is giving up on the city."

Revenue concerns

Hagerstown could suffer more than damage to its image if the new hospital is built in the county, city officials said.

Revenue losses could be substantial if the hospital is built in an area the city can't annex, officials said. The city might consider annexing the property near Robinwood and HCC if the hospital is built there, Breichner has said.

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