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City must assign a staffer to supervise UM project

August 11, 2003

Contrary to what some city officials seem to believe, Hagerstown's most important priority is not keeping Washington County Hospital within the city limits, but attending to every detail of a project that's already here.

We're referring to the conversion of the Baldwin House complex into a downtown campus for the University System of Maryland, the completion of which will put a four-year degree within reach of many Washington County residents who might otherwise not be able to earn one.

It is no exaggeration to say that this may be the most important development in this county in the last 100 years. Not only does this campus have the potential to train local residents for better-paying jobs, but its construction also sends a message to the region that Washington County is serious about education and values it highly.

Because the scaffolding is up on West Washington Street and work is proceeding on the renovation, many assume this project is a done deal. We wish that were so.

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With Maryland facing a large budget deficit, the budget-cutters' tendency will be to say that this project can wait a year or two. And the metropolitan-area lawmakers who have projects of their own would not hesitate to grab the money for this one if they felt they could get away with it.

That's why we feel it's urgent for the city to designate one person on staff to devote as much time as necessary to overseeing every aspect of this project.

At present, City Engineer Rodney Tissue is keeping track of the building and permits aspects of the project, while Planning Director Kathleen Maher attends to plans for the open space around the campus site. And City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman and Mayor William Breichner have met periodically with university officials.

That's not enough. One person needs to be responsible for the successful completion of the project and that person should not be someone like Zimmerman, whose duties pull him in a dozen different directions.

Would giving one department head this job full-time be expensive? Perhaps, but not as expensive as the city government's ill-considered attempt to keep the hospital downtown.

If the hospital relocates to Robinwood, no jobs will be lost, but if this campus isn't completed, the effect on Hagerstown and Washington County will be devastating.

In 2002, the median income in Frederick County was $60,276, about $20,000 higher than in Washington County. The difference is that 30 percent of that county's residents have four-year degrees, as opposed to 14.6 percent here.

That has to change if Hagerstown and Washington County are to become anything but centers for warehousing and distribution operations. The university campus could go a long way toward changing that, which is why the city must appoint someone to oversee the campus development.

This is too important a project for the city government not to do everything possible to make it a success.

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