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Can we agree on the future we want?

October 07, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

Each month I spend a couple of hours meeting with a group of citizens to discuss what's happening on the editorial page and to talk about some of the things they feel I should be looking into.

Last month most of the discussion centered on about how The Herald-Mail is perceived in the community. Afterward I got an e-mail from a member who said that in this election season, he was disappointed we hadn't spent more time discussing the candidates.

Like me, he is disheartened because few of those running seem to have a vision of where the county should be going. Or if they have one, they're not sharing it, perhaps because they don't want to upset anyone with the hard choices that achieving a real vision would require.

One problem is that my vision may be different from yours. While you care deeply about historic preservation, I may feel that the past is dead and that old buildings should make way for modern structures.

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That's essentially the problem with downtown Hagerstown, where historic district status has increased the cost of doing renovations without any of the benefits that would be provided if the city or county had a real tourism program.

This isn't a column about tourism, however, but about how a community makes choices about its future. One good possibility is a process the county began in the late 1980s, but never followed through on.

It was called "strategic planning" and differed from traditional land-use planning because it looked at what was possible, instead of blue-sky versions of what is most desirable.

A group called Focus, Inc., spent two years on research, then issued a report in 1991 with a series of recommendations on issues like land development or emergency services. But the final step - getting the community to decide on a vision for the future - never took place.

So here we are, 10 years later, no closer to a decision than we were then, and as the late Keller Nigh said when presenting his 1989 study on impact fees, if the county does not decide, then the developers will decide for us.

Had we decided on a vision, policies might have been enacted to discourage the development of a new shopping area on one side of the Leitersburg Pike, while the Long Meadow Shopping Center sits half-empty on the other side.

The fire/rescue system's volunteers might have been relieved of the task of running bingo games to raise money for their operations and local farmers might have easement payments or some other mechanism to make their operations more profitable.

When we don't make a choice about where we're going, then the problem of the minute dominates our attention, just as it does in our private lives. If you haven't decided to save for a down payment on a house, then you're more strongly tempted to buy a flashy sports car instead of an economical commuter vehicle.

For example, had county residents decided on a vision before the county enacted a room tax increase, they would have had a clear idea of what all the proceeds would be spent for. Instead, it's become a grab bag for a variety of smaller causes, all worthy, no doubt, but not taking the county toward any agreed-upon goal.

That's not the way private industry plans. Some years ago I was invited to Citicorp's annual employee meeting. Before the entertainment started, the top managers laid out what the firm hoped to accomplish in the next five years. The message to employees was: These are our goals. When you're considering a course of action, ask yourself whether it will help make the goals a reality.

The other benefit of strategic planning is that it emphasizes that visions aren't achieved without work. If you want to preserve farmland or fund fire/rescue operations, you can't do it with wishes.

Does all this sound like some fairy-tale vision of the future? It's not. Large cities like San Francisco and St. Petersburg have been through the process, as has nearby Mercersburg, Pa., which decided that it didn't have the labor pool or the sites to attract large industry and so would opt for tourism and historic attractions.

What do you want Washington County to be five, 10 or 20 years from now? Most agree that what happened in Frederick County shouldn't happen here, but beyond that, the picture is fuzzy. I hope that in the candidate forums to come - and in the pages of this newspaper - the candidates for local office can share their visions between now and Nov. 5.

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

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