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Officials say renovation not enough

July 31, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

The restoration of some downtown Hagerstown's commercial buildings during the past 20 years may have improved the district's appearance, but the many remaining empty storefronts bear silent testimony to the fact that renovation alone is not enough to jump-start dormant downtown business, officials say.

"There's no silver bullet. There's no mega-project" that will energize commerce downtown, said former Mayor Steve Sager. "Communities that bank everything on one project fail."

One problem developers run into when they look for occupants for their buildings downtown is that rents in many buildings "are artificially low," according to architect Kurt Cushwa, who owns or co-owns eight downtown buildings.

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Rents, he said, are established by factors including the owner's mortgage costs, which are in turn determined by construction costs. And construction costs here, he added, "are the same as construction costs in D.C."

"I think we have yet to make a dollar off our buildings - all the money that comes in goes back out" to maintain the buildings, Cushwa said. But he's not trying to make money - yet. "We intentionally put it back in," he said.

But landlords who don't spend the money to do quality restoration to their buildings needn't charge as much for rent, Cushwa said.

Another problem has been the lack of consistency both in vision and in marketing of downtown, Sager said. "There needs to be a shared vision and a coordinated effort. You don't want groups and individuals working in different directions."

One issue that has come up repeatedly in revitalization conversations is housing.

"If you look at other communities there are certain key components that are needed," Cushwa said, adding that what's missing in downtown Hagerstown is the residential component.

"We've got the wrong residential downtown. We need high-end rent; we need a core of maybe 100 families of young professionals."

The city has hired a consultant to examine downtown housing, and the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce also is looking at the issue, said Tom Newcomer, who is a member of the chamber and a downtown businessman.

Newcomer has said he would like downtown Hagerstown to become " a destination for young professionals to live."

Cushwa's buildings enjoy a high occupancy rate, but that takes a lot of work, he said. Right now he's looking for "a good tenant for the clock tower building; our first choice is retail."

And he won't rent to just anybody. Finding the right tenant is a painstaking process, he said.

"It takes patience, hard work - and a lot of phone calls."

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