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City hopes for its own downtown renaissance

May 27, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of occasional stories examining the problems of downtown Hagerstown and the potential solutions to those problems.

tammyb@herald-mail.com

Call it malaise, or maybe a mid-life crisis: A once vibrant downtown commercial district pockmarked by empty storefronts as the crowds that once peopled its streets drift elsewhere.

It's a scene that's been repeated all over the country since interstate highways and shopping malls began to draw consumers out of traditional downtowns and into other commercial areas.

But the exodus hasn't always proved fatal. A number of down-and-out downtown areas have experienced a renaissance of sorts as investors and civic leaders joined forces to create more interest in these core commercial centers.

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Despite city government efforts to revitalize the downtown, Hagerstown faced a series of business closings on Washington Street in 2001 and 2002. At present, there are more than two dozen vacant storefronts in the downtown core.

Nevertheless, some downtown businesses have thrived. At least 22 have operated for 25 years or more. And that's a reason for hope, according to Chris Johansen of Market Knowledge, a Wilmington, Del., marketing firm the city hired to develop a revitalization plan for downtown Hagerstown.

The success of those businesses, Johansen says, "gives us someplace to start."

"Businesses close for a lot of reasons," some of which have nothing to do with the business climate downtown, he said.

Tom Newcomer, president of R. Bruce Carson Jewelers, agreed.

"Sometimes a small business depends greatly on the owner," Newcomer said. "And if something goes wrong in their personal life, it can dissolve the business."

Such circumstances have closed several downtown businesses, he said.

Another issue is that new business owners sometimes don't realize they need a marketing budget, he added. Without a marketing plan, their businesses can fail.

If you build it ...

Hiring Johansen, whom the city will pay up to $10,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds, is just one of several of the city's strategies to resurrect the downtown business district, which stretches roughly from Walnut Street to Cannon Avenue and Church Street to Baltimore Street.

The city offers several programs for helping business and property owners with downtown locations, including loan and tax credit programs for new enterprises in the Arts and Entertainment District, which encompasses the four-block area around Public Square. Matching grants are available throughout the commercial district for sign and facade improvements.

"We've had a fair amount of applications for the facade grants," said Economic Development Coordinator Deborah Everhart, "and we've had more for signs."

The city promotes downtown Hagerstown with advertising and brochures, Everhart said, and includes some of those materials in its billings for utility services.

The city made a significant investment in the appearance of Public Square in 1997-98. The square was reconstructed according to a site plan developed by LDR International in cooperation with the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce. The plan was designed to produce "a more open, people-friendly space in the square," according to Hagerstown Director of Finance Al Martin.

The $500,896 renovation included removing a large fountain from the northeast corner of the square, adding new landscaping and rebuilding the sidewalk.

Newcomer, a former chairman of the Chamber's Downtown Task Force, said the Chamber had four other goals in developing the plan. One was the expansion of the Central Parking Lot. Another was streetscape improvements, which largely have been completed.

The task force also wanted to create an atmosphere that calmed traffic and made downtown Hagerstown "pedestrian-friendly." The final goal, the Arts and Entertainment District designation, was the most expensive, Newcomer conceded, but also had the best potential to bring new life to downtown Hagerstown.

City's challenges

Aesthetics aside, recruiting new businesses - and marketing the existing ones - has been a challenge.

During a recent meeting with downtown retailers, Johansen said there "is a disheartening amount of competition" in the area, including Valley Mall, the Centre at Hagerstown, Prime Outlets and businesses along Dual Highway.

Another challenge is that the business district has been "too large and disorganized," Johansen said. "It's not logical or convenient for customers."

And there is the perception of crime and parking problems downtown.

But Johansen said downtown Hagerstown has some advantages, too.

"There are some good things being added that make a lot of sense," he said.

City officials believe the Arts and Entertainment District designation and the opening of the University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center will attract more business to the downtown commercial area, but warn that it may take time for everything to come together.

"I think that we continually have positive change downtown, but it does evolve slowly," Everhart said.

Next steps

Johansen will meet with retailers again on June 5. He said he hopes to produce a plan that identifies the best kinds of businesses for downtown Hagerstown - and the best places to put them. Because of the "shopping centers that ring the town," he said, downtown businesses "need to deliver unique products and services."

He'll also recommend a marketing strategy to draw in customers. One source is the 3,000 or so people who work downtown. "They are clients needing services," Johansen said.

Newcomer said he believes retailers could work better together to form a bloc to market their businesses to downtown workers.

But he said he also hopes Johansen can develop an effective way to lure to the downtown the tourists who flock to the outlets.

"We're surrounded by high quality retail centers," Newcomer said. "We need to accentuate our uniqueness."

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