Downtown image

Former mayor says many buildings downtown have been restored

Former mayor says many buildings downtown have been restored

July 31, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

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

Former Hagerstown Mayor Steve Sager doesn't really get why so many people have a bad image of downtown.

"We've got wonderful buildings, the clear majority of which are occupied," Sager maintains. "There are very few run-down, eyesore buildings."

To prove the point, he recently took a stroll around the four-block area fronting on Public Square, rattling off the details of project after project to restore the mostly 19th- and early 20th-century buildings. Three major restoration projects are under way downtown now.

By the end of the tour, he'd counted only a handful of buildings in the core commercial district that haven't been restored to some degree since the first efforts to redevelop the downtown area began.


He laughs when he recalls his critics' references to "Hager's Folly," the group of buildings the city purchased and renovated on the northeast corner of the square. That corner now houses the Elizabeth Hager Center, a restaurant, a bank and several offices.

The cost to the city to acquire and renovate the properties was less than half what it would have been to raze the buildings and invest in new construction, Sager said, even though "the buildings were shot. Now it's profitable, pays taxes, utilities and parking."

Sager was mayor from 1985 to 1997, a time when efforts to revitalize downtown Hagerstown had mixed results.

Despite a surge of building renovations - some $56.4 million in public and private funds went into downtown development projects during the first 10 years of the 12-year Sager administration, according to city records - the downtown business community struggled to recover from suburban flight.

While the 1970s took a toll on traditional downtown commerce all over the country, downtown Hagerstown seemed to be destined for disaster.

The pivotal year was 1974. Three fires - at the Maryland Theater on South Potomac, at J.J. Newberry Co. at 67 W. Washington St. and at McCrory's, also on West Washington - closed the theater for four years and destroyed Newberry's. The theater fire was accidental, but the other two were ruled arson. No one was ever charged.

And if the fires didn't make enough of a mess, the city had undertaken a $1 million renovation project in the square, with the resulting obstacles that a major construction project poses. All bets were off with the April 1974 opening of the Valley Mall in Halfway.

"We made it very hard for people to come downtown just when the Valley Mall opened," Sager said.

By the early 1980s, downtown Hagerstown was a curious mix of quality clothing shops, small department stores, trendy restaurants, not so trendy restaurants, adult bookstores - including one on the northeast corner of the square - and an Antietam Street bar that featured topless dancers.

Now the adult bookstore and the topless dancers are gone - but so are the department stores and most of the clothing stores.

There's been another change - the string of building renovations in the past 20 years has significantly changed the appearance of downtown Hagerstown.

Most of those were private projects, from the Hamilton building on the corner of West Washington and Jonathan streets to several buildings at the intersection of Franklin and North Potomac streets.

Restoring an older downtown building is not a simple matter, and it can be a bit of a gamble for the developer.

Hagerstown architect Kurt Cushwa estimates he's been involved in the restoration or construction of more than a dozen downtown buildings, eight of which he still owns either with his wife Peggy or in partnerships with others. Among them is the clock tower building in Public Square.

The first building Cushwa worked on was a joint project with Douglas Reed of Preservation Associates. Together they restored the Max Simon building on North Potomac Street. "That was an education," Cushwa said.

"I learned a lot about limited partnerships and tax credits. And it really is a game."

From his office in the former Engine Co. 3 firehouse, which he also restored, Cushwa said he and Reed bought the building from the city for $1 - and Sager, then a city planner, loaned them the dollar.

The building was in such bad shape, Cushwa said, "I had a draftsman fall through the floor into the basement, which was a swamp." The basement was so wet, in fact, that it put out the gas lantern the draftsman was carrying and saved the building from burning, he said.

Downtown Hagerstown obtained historic district designation during the Sager administration, which at the time brought 25 percent tax credits from the federal government, Cushwa said. There was a state tax credit as well, he said. Getting the tax credits, however, required that the renovations meet certain historical standards.

Now, Cushwa said, governments "are beginning to whack away at the tax credits."

At this point, Sager said, there are two groups among the remaining buildings that need attention. "Some are half-nice," he said, and others need the full treatment. "But we don't have the big, sore thumb buildings anymore."

Nevertheless, he said, "in your own hometown, in a block, if eight buildings are fixed up and two aren't, you notice the two."

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