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City backs planning changes to aid downtown rebuilding

March 17, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

A program that would make it easier for companies to refurbish aging buildings in downtown Hagerstown moved a step closer to being put in place when the City Council on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to changes in the city's main planning document.

City Planning Director Kathleen Maher told the council at its Tuesday work session that changes to the city's Comprehensive Plan would make possible the city's participation in the Civil War Heritage Area Management Plan.

That state program is designed to help preserve Civil War attractions such as Antietam National Battlefield by drawing tourist-related businesses away from the preserved areas and into districts such as downtown Hagerstown by allowing companies to apply for tax credits that can ease construction costs.

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Maher told the council that changes must be made to the Comprehensive Plan - a document that guides development - for the city to be eligible for the program.

To participate in the state program, the city must make changes to the Comprehensive Plan, including creation of a proposed "target investment zone" in which businesses could be eligible for the tax credits.

Maher said that after discussions with state officials, she expected the program to be running by June. Earlier Tuesday, Maher said she did not know how much money would be available until the state budget had been settled.

Maher also discussed at the work session new ways to boost downtown economic development and uses for the environmentally contaminated Central Chemical site in the city's West End.

Maher said other changes in the document designed to encourage increased activity downtown come from recent studies.

Major portions of a downtown market analysis done last summer were written into the Comprehensive Plan, Maher said. That study recommended clustering business types, providing, for instance, a "fashion zone" for clothing and personal care, and zones for arts and restaurants, sports and recreation, home furnishings and "creative and technology" businesses.

At the urging of Councilman Lewis C. Metzner, Maher said she would return at a future meeting with changes to one part of the document.

Metzner said he had problems with a portion that recommended creating a "business improvement district," which would collect taxes and work to keep a defined area clean and safe by removing trash and graffiti, among other things.

Metzner said that type of program has "failed every time we tried," and he would rather see the city create such a program only if members of the community say they want it.

The Central Chemical site recommendations, prepared by an Environmental Protection Agency grant-funded study group, recommend two uses for the site on Mitchell Avenue, Maher said. One would be to turn it into a light industrial area, similar to the Hagerstown Business Park. The other would be to make it a commercial office park.

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