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In debate over location for new hospital, city may want to consider Plan B

August 18, 2002|by TIM ROWLAND

With public officials, you never know what percent of the public line is presented solely for public perception.

Certainly, if for no other reason than PR, the City of Hagerstown needs to put up a fight to keep the Washington County Hospital downtown.

If the city doesn't fight for its largest employer, other existing and prospective businesses would be left to wonder, legitimately, about the seriousness of Hagerstown's committment to downtown commerce.

But publicity aside, the city would be wise to privately be negotiating a Plan B.

First, if the hospital can afford to move, all signs indicate they're going to land adjacent to Hagerstown Community College - something that's been rumored since construction began a decade ago on the Robinwood Medical Center.

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On matters of space, location and proximity to other medical services, this appears to be far and away the best site - and of course it does not necessitate the forcible taking of anyone's home. So there's that.

Second, the impact of losing the hospital may not be as severe as is being publically touted. City officials worry about the loss of doctors and medical support services that surround the hospital, but in truth many - if not most - of them have already left. Left for Robinwood.

And much of the utility revenue the city is worried about losing would be recouped if the hospital moves to Robinwood, a site which could logically be annexed into the city.

Probably those with the most to lose would be the businesses on the hospital employees' route to and from work. Stores in Ames shopping center would probably lose some business, as well as some Frederick Street filling stations or any other business strategically situated along the employees' to-and-from-work avenues. But certainly few would make the case that hospital many employees jog downtown on their lunch hours to do their Christmas shopping.

But even if Robinwood is a done deal, it doesn't mean the city is without cards - and if played right, these cards can provide a winning hand for the hospital, the hospital's patients, the city and the neighborhood that surrounds the existing hospital.

The city doesn't have a lot of cash, obviously, but it does have two items of value to the hospital. As discussed, the city runs pipelines and is in a position to make attractive deals to serve a new hospital at Robinwood.

But along with utilities, the hospital is in need of some positive PR. It's been bruised in the eyes of the community by the trauma-center shutdown and the perception that the beancounters are cutting corners to the detriment of patients and the care-givers.

What the city could do is "release" the hospital from its downtown location with no ill will or harsh words. The city could tell the community, truthfully, that the hospital's move is for the best in terms of convenience to patients and the potential expansion of services.

In exchange, the hospital could volunteer some of its own considerable marketing resources for the redevelopment of the old hospital community.

This would be in sharp contrast to the ill winds that blew when the YMCA made it painfully clear that it couldn't get out of the downtown fast enough and, despite some meaningless lip service, didn't really care a whit what happened to the community or property it was leaving behind.

What if, instead of abandoning downtown, the hospital were to make a serious effort at revitalizing downtown? If it took care of the neighborhood it was leaving behind, that could certainly go a long way toward healing some old and current wounds in the eyes of the public.

Sure it would be nice to dream of a new hospital on the fringe of downtown, a modern facility leading in to a revitalized urban core with a new university campus, Civil War museum, downtown arts center and a kids' scientific leaning station.

Unfortunately though, the bigger you dream the more likely the dreams are to remain just that.

Too often in this community, I've seen us try for everything and get left with nothing. Might it not be better in this instance to try for something with the realistic chance of getting something?

Not so long ago, the City of Winchester wrestled with the same issue. And years before it, the City of Martinsburg did the same. I've heard no one argue that the hospitals did the wrong thing by moving to the fringes of town. And neither did the respective downtowns seem to suffer.

In our own instance, this seems to be a clear case where arguing over a location and the ill will such arguments can generate just aren't worth it. There are still bad feelings in the air over the University System of Maryland fight.

Energy spent arguing can be far better directed by getting behind the hospital and helping its project to succeed wherever it may chose to go. We could take a good lesson from the university fight and not repeat mistakes of the past.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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