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City help may finally be on the way

April 18, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

In June of 2003, consultant Thomas "Rocky" Wade told me that it was time to stop talking about revitalizing downtown Hagerstown and actually start doing something. So almost a year later, what's taking so long?

The short answer: The normal delays involved in starting to do something in a way it's never been done before, at least locally.

The good news, according to officials in government and the private sector, is that within 90 days, there should be some real action.

Wade was hired after a year-long study by the Greater Hagerstown Committee's Urban Renewal Forum, which agreed that downtown's greatest need is to get more homeowners to live there, in market-rate housing. Homeowners are invested, financially and otherwise, in a way that renters are not.

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But when the forum met with developers about rehabilitating shabby rental properties into nice owner-occupied dwellings, the developers told them they didn't want to work on one house at a time, but on an entire block or neighborhood at the same time.

To do that, Wade told city officials, they'd have to set up a community development corporation, or CDC, whose director could put together funding packages and help developers negotiate regulatory hurdles like the building code.

The CDC has been set up, according to Richard Phoebus, president and chief executive of the Washington County Industrial Foundation, Inc., and the two groups are looking "at a project that is of interest to us."

Phoebus wouldn't name the property , but said it was in the "heart of the core" of downtown and would be a commercial/residential development.

The foundation, also known as CHIEF, is in negotiations to buy the property, Phoebus said, "because the CDC doesn't have any resources and because a relationship developed because we were both looking at the same project."

Phoebus said the second task for the CDC will be to secure funding, adding that two sources are currently under consideration.

The first is $300,000 that would come from block grant funds administered by the city's Community Development Department. Of that total, $50,000 would offset administrative costs and $250,000 would go to project costs.

In addition, Phoebus said that the Western Maryland Business Fund, with resources donated by a consortium of local banks, is considering giving up to $24,000 to the effort.

"The third thing is that we're meeting with the consultant in early May to try to put together some other funding sources," Phoebus said.

Asked whether the CDC is looking at what developers had asked for - an entire neighborhood or block to rehab - Phoebus said not at this time.

"We are looking at a vacant lot across the street from the Bester School that we envisioned as a kind of townhouse cluster, but we felt we needed to do something in closer to the core now," he said.

While progress may seem slow, he said, "we're doing the ground work now. We could possibly come to the point where we're functioning in 90 days."

Larry Bayer, head of the Community Development Department, agreed with that, but emphasized that the funding must be approved by the mayor and council. It has been a year, Bayer said, but that doesn't mean nothing's happening.

"There's a fairly steep learning curve here. Without having an executive director on board who knows how to put funding packages together, it's going to take a little time," Bayer said.

Block grant rules require the money to be spent in a way that would benefit low- and moderate-income people. I asked Bayer whether that would mean that only people in those income groups could occupy the rehabilitated housing.

"Right now it would, but it's part of the consultant's contract to write an application to have part of the city designated as a neighborhood revitalization area," Bayer said. Such a designation would remove the restriction, Bayer said.

The city needs more homeowners not only because they'll fight for their neighborhoods - as opposed to renters who will leave when their leases are up - but also because the renovated properties will improve the tax base. With more tax money coming in, perhaps the city government wouldn't be proposing to raise property taxes for the fourth time in four years.

Perhaps this effort would be further along if the city council had allocated the $300,000 it spent fighting the hospital move to the CDC instead.

And instead of fighting the hospital, wouldn't it make more sense to get the hospital to donate its old site to the CDC, for redevelopment as either a luxury high-rise building, or a new neighborhood full of town homes?

The city government has limited resources, in part because some past councils didn't take care of business as they should have. But the past is done. It's time for the city government to stop using its limited funds to fight battles that won't yield it a dime of new tax revenues and start backing the CDC's effort to get more people homes worth buying in downtown.

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