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Million plan for downtown

A $2

July 16, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Last February I wrote a column about developer Manny Shaool's plan to renovate two large buildings on West Washington Street in Hagerstown - if he could get a little help from the city government.

Last week Shaool talked with the mayor and council about one part of the project, but so far, all I know is that they listened. The city's economic development director can't tell me what was said, or how the city might react to the plan, because it was discussed in executive session.

In February, Shaool's project had two parts. The first would involve renovating the building that houses Manny's Oriental Rugs at 72-74 W. Washington St. into what he called a design center.

The center would be a one-stop shopping center for new home buyers, in which they could do everything from looking at house plans to purchasing fixtures for the kitchen sink.

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The second part of the project would have renovated 47-53 W. Washington St., which once housed The Book Store, Etc. into a restaurant on the ground floor and offices and a night club upstairs.

That part of the project is off the table, Shaool told me last week, because the city said there was no way to get him low-cost financing for a project that could cost more than $2 million.

That leaves the design center idea, which Shaool said is still viable because he's willing to finance all but $400,000 of the $2 million project himself.

"It would be a unique business that would have a good demand for what it's offering and that would attract people, regardless of where it's located," Shaool said.

He said he's researched the idea and it's worked well in other areas, because it eliminates the problems new homeowners face when they must coordinate the work done by different subcontractors for flooring, cabinets and the like. In this approach, he said, everything would be coordinated by the center.

Since his own construction company would be the center's best customer, the design center would have a guaranteed amount of sales and hence be profitable, he said.

With plenty of inventory on site, there would be no waiting for deliveries, he said. And as for styles that become outdated, these would be used in his company's construction of rental properties, where style doesn't matter as much.

To provide parking, Shaool would demolish a building he owns at 57 W. Franklin Street, which together with existing parking would provide a total of 60 spaces for the center.

"The city and downtown would benefit from it very highly and it would create at least 24 full-time jobs," Shaool said. And the advertising done for it would draw many people downtown, he said.

"And we believe by creating this design center it would open the door for other similar business, like furniture and antique dealers," he said.

Shaool said construction of such a center would be cheaper elsewhere, but "I'm doing it here to show I'm part of the establishment."

But to offset what he said is the 40 percent greater cost of doing a renovation - as opposed to new construction - Shaool said he needs some incentive from the city government.

"From all the construction going on downtown, we lost about 75 percent of our business in the rug shop. We are about to do something to let that business continue," he said.

But it's not just about his business, he said, but about offering people a reason to come downtown.

"If you offer something unique, people would come to it. And the thing I would be offering would be 100 percent successful, not 99 percent," he said.

For Shaool, who has one of the county's largest construction companies, the rug shop is small potatoes now and he could probably shut it down and still do very well.

That he's pursuing the downtown project says something, I believe, about his desire to show that after making a great deal of money here, he's ready to give something back to downtown.

And if an outside developer came in with a similar proposal, there's no doubt in my mind it would get more attention. Remember Rockville developer Marc Silverman's 2000 proposal to tear down three South Potomac Street buildings and replace them with a $12 million office building? Shaool is here, has done business here for more than 25 years, and deserves the same sort of attention Silverman got.

Will he get it? Deborah Everhart, the city's economic development director, on Monday said she can't say because the council talked to Shaool in executive session.

"Until I would have concurrence with the mayor and council and the developer to go public, I'm not at liberty to discuss the project," she said.

All right, but I suggest that the mayor and council consider this: Where else will they find someone willing to invest $1.5 million in downtown while asking the city government to put up just $400,000?

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