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Bypassed towns at a severe disadvantage

May 21, 2003

WAYNESBORO, Pa., - My wife is partial to the used furniture and antique stores, although my tastes have always run more along the lines of Gus and Ted's.

We both agree though that Waynesboro is charming and vibrant. Not trendy or touristy, it's just a good, honest small town with good, honest businesses and food.

Notably, there is no easy way around the town. If you live on one end and commute to work on the other, you have to wade through the stop lights and traffic and perhaps you consider it something of an annoyance.

Plans were on the books for a seven-mile bypass around Waynesboro, but because of overwhelming public opposition those plans were dropped this week by the Washington Township Supervisors, and speaking from a selfish standpoint, I believe they made the correct decision.

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Obviously, I don't have to hassle with the downtown traffic on a daily basis; if I did, I might feel otherwise. Sometimes "relief routes," as they're euphemistically called, are absolutely necessary. But the truth is, nothing kills a downtown business district like a bypass.

Three decades ago, Hagerstown was effectively hit with not one, but two bypasses, Interstates 70 and 81. Downtown has declined ever since. Despite the best tries of city officials, no projects, initiatives, policies or beautifications have been able to overcome the fact that Hagerstown is too easy to get around.

Interstates aren't designed to be two-exit hops for local traffic, but that's exactly what's happened. In all likelihood, a North End resident who wants to drive to Prime Outlets, for example, isn't going to wrestle through Potomac Street downtown, but instead will breeze down 81 and 70. What do you suppose that costs fine shops like Bikle's and Hoffman's on an annual basis? Lots of people who live on the outskirts probably don't even know they exist.

If you have ever noticed someone drive around a mall parking lot for 15 minutes looking for a parking spot close to the doors, you know that easy matters. Often it matters more than logic, since that same person could have parked in the farthest possible space and walked to the entrance in less time that it took to find a choice spot.

For people and their money to visit a downtown today, they pretty much have to be forced. That means one of three situations have to exist: There must be a major attraction downtown; the inner city core must be a trendy and upscale-enough place for people to want to live there, or there must be no other way to get around it - ideally, the bedroom communities are on one end of town and the places of employment on the other.

The most vibrant cities have two of the three.

Burlington, Vt., is consistently listed as one of the top 10 most desirable cities in the U.S., despite being ringed by interstates. But it has a gorgeous lakefront, a colorful pedestrian mall and captive-audience colleges.

Frederick, Md., has done a nice job with city housing that's within walking distance of the business district.

Norwich, N.Y., has nothing special downtown, but the business district thrives because everyone lives on one side of town and works on the other. And there is no bypass. It is also a terrible pain to get through on a Friday afternoon, but people have no choice.

So where does that leave Hagerstown, which has the severe disadvantage of being bypassed on three sides with next to no comparatively wealthy downtown homeowners and no major attractions?

Nowhere, says George Wagner, a retired Mack Trucks worker who has observed the city since 1925. Wagner drew up a thoughtful list of 14 reasons why Hagerstown will never be the majestic, bustling jewel of the mid-1900s. (Number three on the list is "no bypasses.")

Some of his other points are strikingly simple - the city no longer has any supermarkets or service stations - the life blood of people and their cars. There's validity and a good lesson in what Wagner has to say. Desperate attempts to rekindle the flame aren't likely to work - it's better to be comfortable and accept what we are.

But if straw-grasping is any comfort to anyone, I will offer one, and that is Hagerstown City Park. The crews that have performed such a magnificent job with this showpiece deserve a Hagerstown Medal of Honor, and I believe it may be the one outstanding resource that could be a cornerstone for city resurgence.

Along with the art museum, I'd put ours up against any inner-city park anywhere. (All right, maybe not Portland's park of roses overlooking Mt. Hood, but you get the drift.)

Perhaps someone smarter than I can figure out how to capitalize, and how to tie the park into downtown, four blocks away. Entertainment every weekend (even Washington County's middle school bands are pretty good and they work cheap) with free parking deck parking and shuttle access and coupons for downtown restaurants might be an idea.

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