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Research says housing is key to downtown's revitalization

October 31, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

Editor's note: This is one in a series of occasional stories about Hagerstown's downtown.




tammyb@herald-mail.com

Ed Lough takes an "if you build it, they will come" sort of view of redeveloping downtown Hagerstown - with the "it" in the equation being upscale housing.

If people with disposable income start moving downtown, it's only natural that new business will start sprouting there, he reasons.

"The housing piece has to come first," he said. "If you've got people downtown needing certain services, those businesses will locate there."

Lough is chairman of the Urban Renewal and Historic Preservation Forum of the Greater Hagerstown Committee, a think tank comprised mainly of business leaders and local officials. The forum researched what was necessary to revitalize downtown Hagerstown and concluded that quality, middle-income housing to attract retirees and young professionals was key.

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"Always before, the push has been to bring more retail, retail, retail downtown," Lough said.

And now, the city government is close to forming a community development corporation to make the construction of market-rate housing easier for developers. Lough said he hopes the corporation will be in place within a month.

His forum's research included interviews with consultants and public officials from other communities, Lough said, "and we came to the conclusion that the housing piece was the most important."

Because of the ongoing University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center project on West Washington Street, recent improvements to Public Square and the planned Bowman Development Corp. renovation of two commercial buildings on South Potomac Street, "we were told that this is the exact right timing to push housing," Lough said.

The group then met with developers to gauge their interest in projects downtown. "We were told they do have an interest, but they needed some changes," Lough said.

One of their requests, Lough said, was "a one-stop shop" to handle the paperwork and regulatory materials required, and to keep developers informed of grants, loans and tax credits available for redeveloping urban areas.

To that end, the Greater Hagerstown Committee proposed the community development corporation as a conduit through which developers could access public and private financing and approvals for their projects.

The city agreed, and hired Washington, D.C., consultant Thomas "Rocky" Wade to set up the corporation. During a series of meetings with Hagerstown officials, business leaders and others, Wade said he found "amazing community support and institutional support" for the corporation.

It will be a publicly run not-for-profit corporation, he said.

While no particular street or neighborhood has been targeted for redevelopment as yet, he said "developers and financial people are chewing at the bit" to get projects started.

Wade said a board of directors is in place for the corporation, and that paperwork to set it up is in the final stages. "As I understand it, the city attorneys are getting the final language together to submit to the IRS and the state for tax purposes," he said.

Community Development Director Larry Bayer declined to release the list of directors, saying the names had not yet been presented to the City Council. He said the names likely would be released in two to three weeks.

The next step will be to hire a director to run the corporation. And then, Wade said, "we will probably issue requests for proposals" for redevelopment projects.

One question remains to be answered: Will it work?

"There's an almost 40-year history of community development corporations," Wade said. "Some of them have gotten so big that people forget it's a not-for-profit."

Hagerstown, he said, is ripe for the services the corporation will provide. "There are places where I've said 'this won't work.' If we didn't think it would work here, we wouldn't spend so much time on it," he said.

Lough said he hopes downtown redevelopment projects will attract new tenants and homeowners to the area. "We're not interested in displacing people," he said, "but if you're going to renovate housing, there may be new tenants and new owners."

He conceded it might take some public funding to jump-start the corporation, but said if its first project shows success, other developers might take the risk.

"Once we have that first successful project, we'll be on our way," he said.

"I've had people say to me 'I'd love to live downtown if housing and services were available,'" Lough said. "People who are gonna shop and eat downtown are people who will work or live downtown."

Lough and Wade said that although the corporation's priority will be working with housing projects, it would be available to certain commercial ventures as well.

"This is going to be for putting big projects together," said Economic Development Director Deborah Everhart.

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