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One successful downtown firm and why it decided to stay there

May 28, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Associated Engineering Sciences, Inc., isn't a business that depends on foot traffic, says its vice president, Rich Reichenbaugh. Many customers never come to the downtown office at all, he said.

And so when the owner of the downtown Hagerstown building decided he wanted to sell, AESI officials had to decide whether they wanted to stay or go.

"We had undergone a fairly extensive analysis of a variety of sites, some even in West Virginia," Reichenbaugh said.

On one side of the ledger was tradition. The firm had been at 34 W. Franklin St. for 30 years, located between the post office and the Broad Axe tavern, whose parking lot adjoins AESI's own. In exchange for allowing the tavern's customers to park there at night, Reichenbaugh said the Broad Axe plows AESI's lot for free when it snows.

And there was the convenience factor. To file plans, attend hearings or deal with project financing issues, AESI staffers could walk to Hagerstown's City Hall, county offices and local banks.

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A desire to help the community also played a part, Reichenbaugh said.

"We also are fairly involved in the community as far as an organization goes. We're making our own small step toward downtown revitalization by staying here," Reichenbaugh said.

But it was not as easy as just saying yes. Staying would involve an investment of almost a quarter of a million dollars, because Reichenbaugh said the building's previous owner didn't want to tie any buyer's hands by extending AESI's lease.

"We talked with the city and county and asked if any funding was available. We didn't get very far with that. From the county side, we were too small to qualify. On the city side, I guess we just fell through the cracks," Reichenbaugh said.

That is surprising, given that Reichenbaugh is a major player in local government matters.

When the Greater Hagerstown Committee formed a task force to consider how local governments could become more efficient, he was named its chairman.

The Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce named him the chamber's Small Business Person of the Year for 2002. And Reichenbaugh will chair the Washington County United Way's 2003 campaign. Ironically, he was the city's representative on the Washington County Economic Development Commission before resigning.

"One of the things they kept talking about at EDC board meetings was that 80 percent of the new jobs are created by existing businesses. I personally believe that if we had made the announcement that we were moving to Timbuktu, they'd have come forward with an offer to try to help us stay," he said.

"We did get a letter from the mayor and council thanking us for staying downtown," Reichenbaugh said, adding that it would have been a lot more special if the city had done something to help make it happen.

Despite that, AESI will remain downtown and Reichenbaugh said that he expects the business to prosper here.

Not that the firm is doing badly right now. AESI did all the site work for the Martinsburg Mall, designed the Food Lion distribution center in Greencastle, Pa., and is in charge of site work at the Francis Scott Key Mall in Frederick and at Allegheny Technology Park.

"Over the past year and a half, we've grown by 50 percent in terms of the number of employees and revenue. There is a great deal of work out there," Reichenbaugh said.

Good things are ahead for downtown as well, Reichenbaugh said.

"If I didn't have a belief in downtown, we wouldn't have spent the large dollar amount we did. Downtown has a great deal of potential that's unrealized," he said.

Tim Troxell, executive director of the Washington County Economic Development Department, said his agency had tried to help AESI, but its small size was a problem, as was the nature of their project.

AESI wanted to buy a building in the 3,000-to-6,000 square-foot range, Troxell said, and of the two that size on EDC's list, AESI was already aware of one of them. As for grants, Troxell said that if the firm had been proposing to double the size of its building or work force, there might have been cash available.

"I recommended that they talk to the city," Troxell said.

Deborah Everhart, the city's economic development coordinator, did not return a call for this column. To be fair to her, she was still doing double duty as zoning administrator when AESI started looking around.

But if someone like Reichenbaugh, who's been closely involved in the process, goes away feeling that everything possible wasn't done, then something in the process needs work.

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

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