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'Rocky' wants you to live downtown

June 20, 2003

"There's been enough talk, there've been enough studies. Now it's time to implement something."

Are those the words of a disgruntled taxpayer or an elected official grown weary of the slow pace of progress?

No, the comment comes from an unlikely source - Thomas "Rocky" Wade, a consultant who wants to help Hagerstown set up an organization that will promote the redevelopment of the downtown area.

Before you groan and remember the last dozen failed efforts to breathe new life into downtown, consider that unlike others that focused on attracting new commercial ventures, this one keys on housing, specifically the development of market-rate housing.

For more than a year, the Urban Renewal and Historic Preservation Forum of the Greater Hagerstown Committee has looked at what it would take to revive downtown. The panel concluded that what's needed is homeowners with some disposable income.

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Many of the people who live in the downtown area now are renters, with no real stake in what happens there. Some people have invested in homes there, but it's mighty lonely being the only homeowner on the block, particulary if some of your neighbors are engaged in illegal activities.

Greater Hagerstown found a remedy for that when they met with the developers, who said they didn't want to do redevelopment piecemeal. They want a block or an entire neighborhood to work on.

Whether this means they would renovate existing properties or demolish them and build new structures is uncertain now. But Ed Lough, the Greater Hagerstown panel's chair, told me in February that the group would work with historic property experts to determine what's historic and what's not.

So what's the next step?

Wade, who works for a Washington, D.C.-based firm called Tonya, Inc., said the city should set up what he calls a "master CDC" or community development corporation.

This agency, which Wade said would be a public-private partnership, would evaluate project proposals and help developers with regulatory problems.

Setting it up will not require a lengthy study or debate on how it should be designed, Wade said.

"There are already models that have been done and we would be taking a model that works somewhere else and using it here," he said.

Possible models include those CDC's that have been set up in Macon and Augusta, Ga., Knoxville, Tenn., and Venture, Calif., Wade said.

"It should be done in no more than 90 days," he said.

Finding some seed money for start-up costs will be necessary, but to hear Wade tell it, the most important factor in making it work will be finding a person who can work with both government and the developers.

"We tend to see a creative tension between the public and private sectors. (The CDC executive) has to be a person who understands both of those tensions," Wade said.

If that sounds too much like bureaucrat-speak, here's what Wade is getting at. Government, by its nature, regulates activity. Developers, on the other hand, chafe at any regulation that prevents them from getting the job done.

The CDC director has to be someone who can take an obstacle related to (for example) the building code and either persuade the developer that it's important enough to comply with or convince the inspector that the world will not crack in half if the regulation in question isn't strictly enforced.

Wade said the time is right for such an effort because everyone agrees that something needs to be done to improve downtown's housing stock. And with the prices of new homes soaring, a renovated property downtown may become a more attractive option to someone who's either just starting out, or someone older who wants less yard work and the ability to walk to restaurants and other amenities.

My oldest son is in the "just starting out" category. Hired recently by the Washington County school system, he decided he would rather build equity than pay rent, but his finances limit him to houses in the $65,000 to $70,000 range.

About a month ago we got a list of such properties in downtown and walked the streets for an afternoon to look at them.

No one was unfriendly, except for a few dogs that lunged at the fences every time anyone passed by, but being the only homeowner on the block would not be my preferred option.

But if there were four or five of us doing that deal at the same time, that would be something else. That's how I grew up, in a housing development built on an old driving range in West Hyattsville, Md.

Young married couples bought their first homes, raised their kids alongside one another and helped out when they could. My dad and two neighbors went together and purchased a two-story extension ladder for painting and gutter cleaning.

But nostalgia won't make this work for downtown Hagerstown. The right person heading it up will, along with a six-month moratorium on gloom-and-doom remarks. All those young people who want homes have to start somewhere. Why not Hagerstown?

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