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Ambitious plan could be big boost for downtown

February 02, 2003

Given the critical need for investment in downtown Hagerstown, wouldn't it be wonderful if the city government could:

- Find a developer with a proven ability to get projects done who's willing to renovate two large buildings?

- Find someone who believes so much in downtown that he's willing to recruit others to buy and invest in large properties there?

Sound like a dream? It's not. And even better, there's no need to go looking for this person, because he's already here and has run a downtown business for more than 20 years.

It's Manny Shaool, owner of Manny's Oriental Rugs at 72-74 W. Washington St. and the force behind a variety of housing developments, including the upscale Black Rock Estates on Mt. Aetna Road. In a two-hour interview last week, he talked about a proposal he said he hasn't gotten much attention up at City Hall. City officials say they've spoken to him about it, but aren't sure how they can do the financing.

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Here's how it would work:

Shaool would turn the building that houses his rug shop into a multi-story design center, where people looking to build or renovate a home would be able to buy everything from hardwood floors to plumbing fixtures.

At the same time, he would demolish a property he owns at 57 W. Franklin St, which once housed a dry cleaner's, to provide up to 60 parking places for design center customers.

"This would attract lots of jobs and traffic to downtown Hagerstown, and people from all over the Tri-State area," he said.

Th design center would have a guaranteed customer base to begin with, Shaool said, because his development company would purchase its own building supplies there.

Across the street from Shaool's rug shop is 47-53 W.Washington St., which last housed the Book Store, Etc., and years before that, Rosen's Department Store. Shaool wants to purchase and renovate that, putting a restaurant on the ground floor of the 50,000 square foot structure and offices and a nightclub upstairs.

Ambitious? You bet. Impossible? No.

Shaool takes pains to point out that he not only has a degree in engineering and an MBA, but is also a well-traveled and successful developer. It can be done, he said, but the city must help him find a low-interest, long-term loan, because it won't be easy.

Only one floor of the seven-story rug shop is in use now, he said and the roof leaks and the elevators don't work. And though former Book Store owner Pam Reed oversaw a renovation project on that building's first floor, the view from the street shows there's much to do upstairs.

When Shaool pitched this plan, he said city officials gave him an application about half-an-inch thick. At a time when banks are lining up to lend him money for other projects, the city should be more helpful, he said.

"Every time I try to talk to them they are not there or they're on sick leave, vacation or somebody is shuffling me to another person," Shaool said, adding that he doesn't dislike anyone at City Hall, but just feels the present system isn't working.

"These two ideas would be a good start to attract other developers. I would seed something here, but the city would have to water it," he said.

Is Shaool's belief in downtown's potential genuine? Consider this: He recruited one friend from Rockville, Sam Sharooz, to purchase the Hamilton Hotel, at the corner or West Washington and Jonathan Street and another from New York, Mo Azadi, to purchase the old Schindel-Rohrer building on South Potomac Street. Neither returned my phone calls, but Deborah Everhart, the city's economic development director, confirmed the purchases.

Everhart, recently promoted to that post - she previously split her time between economic development and as zoning administrator - said she believes the project is "very feasible."

But she said she was not sure the city could legally issue long-term tax-exempt bonds on behalf of a private individual. She referred me to Finance Director Al Martin, who did not return my phone calls in time to be included in this column.

But Everhart said that are historic tax credits and a federal program called New Markets for commercial structures that would provide substantial savings. But in answer to my question, she said yes, that Shaool would have to obtain financing himself to take advantage of those.

Previously Everhart has been handicapped by the split nature of her duties, but now has the green light to pursue development full-time.

Shaool has offered to talk to city officials about his plans with the press present. They should take him up on that. Even though his success as a developer would allow him to walk away from downtown, he hasn't done so and has even recruited others to invest there. For that, his proposals deserve a little bit more respect than they've gotten so far.

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

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