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Merchants praise Downtown Squad

July 02, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

Downtown business owners say serious crime hasn't been a problem for them, although they could do without loiterers on downtown streets. But even that issue is diminishing since the Hagerstown Police Department established its Downtown Squad in March, according to several business owners and their employees.

"Just their presence downtown makes people feel safer downtown; not that it was unsafe before," said Dax Zombro, who's worked at Bikle's Ski & Outdoor Shop on North Potomac Street for 11 years. "I've never been a victim of any crime," he said, "I've never witnessed it."

Mike Snyder, owner of Bogard's USA on North Potomac Street, said crime downtown is more of a perception problem than a real one. "It's not as bad as what they say it is," he said. "It's a small town so the problem seems larger most crime is from out of town."

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"I myself have never had a problem," he said.

Even so, Snyder said the increased police presence downtown has made an impression. "If they see any undesirables, they're right on it," he said.

The development of individual businesses has helped as well. "This was one of the worst corners in Hagerstown," said Charlie Sekula, who has operated the Schmankerl Stube restaurant on the corner of South Potomac and Antietam streets since 1988. But despite predictions that his restaurant would close within a few months, "I'm still here," he said.

"Charlie has changed that whole block down there," Snyder said. "If he has problems with somebody, he escorts them out."

"Crime per se, I have not witnessed, no," Sekula said. "Vagrancy, yes - and the police are dealing with that. And I distinguish between homelessness and vagrancy.

"You have a perception, and we're dealing with it," Sekula said.

Since the Downtown Squad swung into action, "there is definitely a visible difference," he said, "and this is what you need for a noncrime perception it's a very, very positive uptrend."

Although another downtown restaurant reported a break-in earlier this year, one of its owners was undeterred - despite a shooting down the street on June 24.

"I didn't even know about it," said Paul Deputy, part-owner of The Gourmet Goat at 4 E. Franklin St. "It was just a freak thing that happened," and didn't affect his business "at all," he said.

Deputy said customers feel safe in the restaurant, and that he was "very happy" with the police presence downtown. "They're right there whenever you need them."

"I have had more contact with the police over the last six to eight months," said Pat O'Brien, who has operated Ben's Flower Shop on South Potomac Street for more than 30 years. "They check in to see how we're doing."

Other than what he called "minor vandalism" and loiterers, O'Brien said, "I don't have too many problems here I don't think it's any better or worse than it's been in 30 years."

One area the police have given a lot of attention is the Washington County Free Library.

"We've not had any serious crime," said library Director Mary Baykan. "We've had people just loitering on the street," which made patrons uncomfortable, she said.

"We've also had problems with drunkenness during the winter," she said, "but that has not been an issue this summer. We had some concerns about panhandling, but that has stopped.

"From our vantage point, we're very appreciative of the police," Baykan said. "They're very responsive and very visible. We've noticed a decided drop in loitering. It's been a very pleasant environment."

"I personally have never felt unsafe down here, and I've been down here 20 years," said Katie Wright as she wrapped a wedding gift at Carol&Co. on West Washington Street.

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