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Will this chance be lost?

August 17, 2004

The American dream of owning a home is still alive and well - if your salary has kept pace with what The Associated Press described as Maryland's "skyrocketing" prices. It may be alarming to some, but the surge in prices may also provide an opportunity to redevelop the City of Hagerstown.

The latest figures on price trends in this region were released last week the National Association of Realtors.

The report noted that while prices nationwide jumped 9 percent just from April through June, Baltimore and Washington home prices both climbed 23 percent in the last year.

But despite having the same rate of increase, the average home is still priced $100,000 less in the City of Baltimore, drawing in buyers who otherwise might have gone for a location in the D.C. suburbs.

And, there's another wrinkle - as fast as the prices of all homes are increasing, new home prices are going up even faster.

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To sum up, then: Older properties in the cities are selling for less than new properties in the suburbs and people who normally wouldn't live in the cities are giving them a second look.

Bringing new homeowners to the City of Hagerstown was the idea in June 2003 when the city council agree to pay consultant Thomas "Rocky" Wade to set up a community development corporation, or CDC.

It was envisioned that the CDC would put together deals to buy blocks of downtown homes to either refurbish them or demolish them and build new ones.

Wade said the CDC would be ready to go within 90 days, but without funding for an executive director and staff, the effort has languished.

The delay is dangerous, for a couple of reasons. The Federal Reserve has shown signs it will increase interest rates, making it less attractive to buy a home. Sellers of suburban homes who dreamed of golden paydays may have to cut prices.

If it becomes harder to buy, then people who rent will be stuck in rentals longer, which means that landlords will have less incentive to sell.

Now is the time to act, even if it means reassigning a city official to direct the effort. The city needs homeowners with disposable income to invest in their properties and to support businesses downtown.

A combination of factors make this the right time to launch this effort to redevelop Hagerstown. We hope officials won't let this golden opportunity slip through their hands.

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