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Hospital fight draining focus from Hagerstown's top goal

August 31, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

When former Hagerstown mayors Bob Bruchey and Steve Sager launched a vigorous campaign to locate a proposed state university campus downtown, no one gave them a chance. So perhaps it's with this unlikely success in mind that the city is doggedly pursuing a course to keep Washington County Hospital downtown as well.

But while the university project was a political decision, the hospital project is a business decision, and the state and local medical community is not about to be swayed by theories of Smart Growth or potential downtown glorification.

Forget renovating the old hospital. Modern, high-tech medical systems can't be retrofitted into aging asbestos traps. And a new hospital might be nice for the skyline, but it will just take up otherwise taxable space. As for the economic impact, the only doctor you'll catch shopping or otherwise seeking inspiration downtown is likely to be named Suess.

It's proper for the Hagerstown City Council to ask pointed questions about the new project. It is proper for the council to try to leverage the hospital into paying its fair share of roads and utility lines that will be needed to serve the new facility.

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But it is obstructionist and self-defeating to attempt to block state approval of a $170 million project that will benefit the city just as much, maybe more, if it's built on the outskirts of Hagerstown as opposed to downtown.

If the city had no other irons in the fire on which to while away the time in office, a full-frontal war on the modern day health care establishment might be an interesting diversion with no potential harm done.

But in the university, Hagerstown is incubating its greatest project of a generation (yes, even counting the First Urban Mulch Plant) and the successes and failures of downtown over the next 20 years could well be determined by how well this campus does and how well the city prepares for its opening.

Every spare ounce of energy right now ought to be spent on two things: the university and residential housing.

Instead of hounding the state medical board, the city should be waking up in the morning with the state Board of Regents. It ought to be badgering the local lawmakers delegation to start its fight for funding now, in the legislative off-season so there's no 11th hour funding crisis arising from the state's tight budget.

No detail should be spared in preparing the open space around the Baldwin. The city should be working up a program with local shops and restaurants whereby new students would get coupons or incentives to spend some time and money in the city.

What hours will most of the students be attending classes, and are nearby city merchants and services prepared to alter their hours accordingly? Little economic success will be realized if most of the classes are held at night and everything's closed.

First impressions are everything. Behaviors and habits are established early on. If a working person shows up for a night class and the city is locked up tight as a drum, the campus could possibly generate more negative energy about the downtown than positive.

Education is primary, but the state policy (at the time, at least) was also to use the campus as an economic engine. To that end, professors and students might be encouraged to hang out after class at Roccoco, the Rhubarb House or the 'Stube for a drink and dessert.

Working students are frequently crunched for time. What conveniences can the city offer whereby they can grab a haircut, drop off dry cleaning or grab a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread nearby? Will there be a directory and map of city businesses and their hours in the lobby? Will the city make sure merchants are aware of the most heavily attended night classes so they can plan to stay open a night or two a week offering school specials? Once people get a taste of Bentley's coffee and muffins, it's hard to believe they wouldn't be frequent customers.

What will students see between their parking space and the college door? We want it convenient, but not too convenient - we want them walking past a couple of storefronts, with a visible police presence so they feel safe.

Not everyone will have to drive to the school. Subsidized housing folks have been in the news a lot lately, and while obviously not all are college material, some just need a chance. Hagerstown Community College is already working toward that goal, and there are plenty of questions the city can be asking to help out. How many in public housing have the potential to take advantage of higher education? Can they get daycare help?

If you're mad about public housing becoming the kudzu of Hagerstown, the best thing to do is reduce the Section 8 rolls by giving people an education and a job that will pay them enough to buy their own homes.

There are so many loose ends to be tidying. The campus will be within walking distance of Jonathan Street. How can this great new educational resource be used to pull up a community to which the city has given little more than a police presence and sidewalk cameras?

All this is not to imply that the city is not working on some of these details as we speak, because it is. But the campus will be opening for business in the blink of an eye and there is a long way to go.

Company's coming over in an hour and the livingroom's still a mess. This isn't the time to be refinishing the coffee table. Let City Hall forget the hospital and throw everything it has into making the University System of Maryland campus be everything that was envisioned by Hagerstown's former mayors.

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