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Ideas alone won't save downtown Hagerstown

August 22, 2003

Promote downtown Hagerstown? Haven't there been a thousand schemes to do that before, with mixed results?

Yes, but this time a consultant has come up with an idea that just might work, if city officials and the downtown merchants can agree to support it without the nit-picking that's hurt earlier efforts.

Chris Johansen, president of the Delaware-based Market Knowledge Inc., on Tuesday told the City Council that the city needs to work on ways to get the thousands who visit the Prime Outlets mall on Md. 65 to shop and dine downtown.

In other cities with outlets, Johansen said, downtown merchants have set up tents at the malls, providing information on what's downtown and even offering some merchandise for sale. In other cases, he said, cities have offered shuttles between the mall and the downtown area.

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Would Prime Outlets allow that, or would its managers require the city to rent a storefront there? If so, then the city and the Washington County government could work together, not only to promote downtown, but to plug tourism county-wide as well.

Johansen said Prime Outlets customers are an untapped market and a good one because they have no prejudice against downtown.

Johansen provided some other ideas, including clustering businesses that complement each other, like home furnishings and fixtures and creating committees that would work on items like promotion.

If taking joint action for the good of all sounds familiar, it's because the city tried that once with the Downtown Assessment District. But DAD dissolved itself after 14 years in 1999, just as the Centre of Hagerstown opened.

At the time we said that action was folly, that downtown needed a unified approach more than ever. Now perhaps merchants will realize that a little marketing and a bit of promotion is needed to put money in the cash register.

We'll see. Johansen's ideas are good, but unless city officials and merchants can agree on common goals and a strategy to work together, downtown won't move forward.

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