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Consultant says city needs marketing plan, leader

August 21, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

Consultant Chris Johansen took a look at downtown Hagerstown and realized the city needs a good, comprehensive marketing plan with an organizing body and someone in charge.

Johansen, president of Market Knowledge Inc. of Wilmington, Del., on Tuesday presented his report to the Hagerstown City Council.

It's not the first time city leaders have heard that kind of advice from a consultant - in fact, a consultant told the city in 1981 that it needed a management group and special funding for promotions to revitalize the downtown commercial district.

The proposal by John Sower, director of the National Development Council, was to create a new tax district downtown to raise money for promotions and advertising to help downtown businesses compete with Valley Mall.

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His $6,500 report - half of which was to be funded by the city government and half by contributions from businesses, according to reports in The Morning Herald - raised controversy from the start. Many were put off by the idea of a tax. And the now-defunct Downtown Business and Professional Association balked at paying its half for the report, releasing a statement that said, "The report shows nothing new and appears to be an 'off the shelf' document, usable up to a point, in any city with downtown problems."

"Half of that stuff we've known for years, but haven't gotten out to do it," said Katy O'Connell, the co-president of the group, who since has died.

After all, the city had heard in a 1978 report by the Washington firm of Hammer, Siler, George & Associates that it needed a downtown revitalization organization. What was new in Sower's report was the suggestion of a tax to fund it.

This time, the city "got out to do it." By the end of 1982, legislation had been drafted to allow the city to establish a "downtown assessment district." Without General Assembly approval, the city had no authority to establish the new tax district.

The original plan was to tax downtown property owners, most of whom the city believed supported the tax. By the time the Downtown Assessment District became a reality in 1984 - despite vehement opposition by several business owners and former Delegate Paul Muldowney, then chairman of Washington County's delegation to the General Assembly - the tax was levied on businesses instead of on property owners. Opponents to the tax nearly packed the DAD board of directors.

"It was just another tax," Muldowney said Tuesday. "A very ineffective program. We all knew it would be except (former Mayor) Don Frush; he thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread."

Despite its difficult start, DAD survived, with various modifications, into the mid-1990s. Its successes were mixed, however, and during the administration of Mayor Robert Bruchey, the City Council declined to renew the assessment.

The problem, according to Bruchey's predecessor, Steve Sager, was that "they didn't replace it with anything."

He conceded that DAD ultimately failed because there was so much "focus on the tax aspect. Making it a fee against merchants rather than property owners, it was way behind the eight-ball before it was officially organized."

Nevertheless, he said, downtown players understood the need for an organization at the time. "Maybe they need to hear it again," he said.

In 1994, the Hagerstown/Washington County Economic Development Commission hired the Cumberland, Md., firm of McClarran and Williams to develop an advertising and public relations plan for downtown Hagerstown at a cost of $14,350, according to a Morning Herald report. That study focused on drawing tourists into downtown and resulted in the publication of brochures and the advent of "Around the Town" local television ads, Hagerstown Finance Director Al Martin said.

The Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce in 1995 stepped in with its own study, the Downtown Image Enhancement Plan, prepared by Cyril B. Paumier Jr. of LDR International, a Columbia, Md., consulting firm. That study had more to do with the appearance of downtown than with marketing, and led to the city's last refurbishment of Public Square, Martin said.

LDR also prepared a study for the city's proposed Arts and Entertainment District in 2000. The city contributed $8,000 to the $70,000 cost; the county contributed another $30,000, the chamber contributed $12,000 and the remaining $20,000 was funded by an Appalachian Regional Commission grant. The study included plans for a proposed performing and visual arts center.

The city has authorized up to $10,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to pay Johansen for his work.

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