Downtown has potential and a plan, but needs money

November 11, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

On election night as I waited for the returns to come in, I went through a bunch of old papers in a pile beside my desk and came across a 1997 Baltimore Sun story about downtown Hagerstown.

It quoted Andy Singer, owner of a remodeling business then located on Franklin Street, as saying that "the rejuvenation of downtown Hagerstown is so close now you can almost touch it."

So five years later, how close is it?

For answers, I spoke to Kathy Maher, the city's senior planner, who told me it might take another five years and $23 million before the process of creating an Arts & Entertainment District downtown is complete. But things are moving in the right direction, Maher said.

The idea for the A&E District came from a 1996 study done for the Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce. The city council adopted it in 1999 as the plan for downtown revitalization.


Its ambitious goal is to make downtown a destination for those who enjoy cultural events and fine dining, while retaining the center city's "daytime role" as a government and financial center.

To hear Maher tell it, the process will involve several things coming together at once. The biggest thing, she said, is the performing and visual arts center, tentatively planned for the Edison Apartments, where the Maryland Symphony Orchestra office is now and in the old Henry's Theater building.

"The idea is centering it around South Potomac Street to create a place for the City Ballet, the Washington County Arts Council's gallery and a small, adaptable theater," she said.

Not only would this attract traffic downtown as people came to shop or take children to ballet lessons, Maher said, but it would also provide a space for smaller acts that couldn't fill the 1,300-seat Maryland Theatre. The Maryland Symphony Orchestra would also have a place to rehearse, she said.

The whole project, which includes changes to the lobby and the front of the Maryland Theatre, will cost $23 to $26 million, an amount which includes an endowment fund so community arts groups wouldn't have to pay rent.

"The plan is to have a complex and to have things going on in it all the time, like classes back in the old Hager's Row area where Gowns by Sunny used to be," she said.

But Maher conceded that raising the money, which the city and the chamber hoped to do through state bond bills and a local capital campaign, will take a while. In the meantime, she said, the strategy is to push for small steps forward that will advance the project.

The city is encouraging those who redevelop older properties to put retail shops on the first floor, Maher said, so a "critical mass" of shops is developed to draw visitors downtown.

"We also want to facilitate the idea of (School) Superintendent Betty Morgan's idea of an arts high school downtown," Maher said. In my view, that could go into the space that will be vacated next year when Frostburg State University moves to the Hagerstown Education Center of the University System of Maryland.

And speaking of the university, Maher said the group wants to work to see it evolve from a school geared to working people who attend night classes into a full-time four-year college campus.

Part of making all this happen will involve encouraging the development of "market rate" or unsubsidized housing in and around downtown. Maher said that downtown needs residents who have the income to frequent the shops, restaurants and other cultural attractions.

Maher said a Rockville-based partnership that was attracted by the university has just purchased two large downtown buildings - the old Hamilton Hotel on West Washington Street and the old Schindel-Rohrer Building on South Potomac Street.

Asked if there's anything the average citizen can do to assist the project, Maher said people can make contributions to the project, which is a line item in the city's budget. But they also need to give downtown another chance and not just remember it as it was years ago.

"Downtown has a lot of potential. We really need the community to take another look at downtown," Maher said.

Downtown needs a few other things, in my view:

  • As I said earlier this week, a full-time downtown coordinator is needed. Just as the Maryland Symphony needs a maestro to help its talented players work together, downtown needs someone to bring its different parts together.

  • To spur development of "market-rate" housing, the city must follow through on its rental-inspection program. Fleabag apartment buildings don't attract anybody who can afford to live somewhere else.

  • As the city updates its Web site, there should be one page - not 25 I have to scroll through - that I can access to find out when retailers are open and what the daily specials are at downtown restaurants. Make things easy and they just might come.

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

The Herald-Mail Articles