For Hagerstown, opportunity knocks

September 19, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to the open house of a property near our home where her aunt and cousins used to live. The old house, on a small hill above a swift-running stream, had been beautifully restored and the barn rebuilt, but there were fewer than 20 acres left from the original parcel. It sold for more than $400,000. Twenty-five years ago, I could have purchased the house, the barn and 69 acres for $125,000.

Back then that seemed like a million dollars, though if I'd done it, I might be a millionaire now. Sometimes a chance to do great things comes your way and you have to decide whether to take it.

That's the position Hagerstown and some of the organizations dedicated to its revitalization are in right now.

Property in and around the downtown area is available and so are funds to purchase and improve it, according to Tom Riford, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.


Riford spoke to me as the public-relations person for the Community Development Corporation that was formed to revitalize the city by purchasing properties and rehabilitating them.

The CDC's original mission was to take dilapidated homes - actually blocks of them - and renovate them into market-rate housing to draw new homeowners to the city.

That's still part of the plan, as Richard Phoebus told me recently. Thirty to 35 townhouses will be built on property a stone's throw from the city's Public Square. But, Riford said, other things are happening as well. Nothing is set in stone, but here's what some people are thinking about as possibilities.

With the Venice Inn on U.S. 40 under new ownership and the old Ames store across the street vacant, Riford said there's a possibility that the long-sought convention center might be developed there, with the conference area in the old retail space and a refurbished Venice as the lead hotel for many conventions.

Previous convention-center studies have concluded that Hagerstown loses some conventions it might otherwise land on the basis of price because there isn't enough exhibition space.

Converting the Ames property would remedy that as well as reinvigorating the Venice, which, despite its location at the gateway of the city, has been struggling since it was sold by in 1997 by the Vidoni family, which had operated it for nearly 50 years. Just the possibility that this piece of Hagerstown history would be revived makes this an idea worth discussing.

Not far from the Venice is the Washington County Hospital, whose officials are planning a move to the Robinwood area. Hospital CEO James Hamill has said that the project cost estimates include razing the existing property so it can be converted to other uses.

If that happens, Riford said, the CDC hopes to acquire the property with a view to putting a cluster of new owner-occupied market-rate homes there. As much as anything else, Hagerstown needs new residents with disposable income who will not only use some of that to support downtown businesses, but also advocate for their neighborhoods.

The final piece of this plan will be the possible renovation of Municipal Stadium, Riford said. With a convention center nearby, this would another entertainment amenity for convention-goers, particularly if it includes a Willie Mays museum.

I suggested that in a recent column, but I can't believe the Hagerstown Sun' management hadn't already started thinking about it after Mays' recently visit here. Think about it: For one low price, you'd get to visit the museum and see a Suns' game. Not only would it be a tourist draw, it would also be a way to memorialize the civil-rights struggles of African-Americans during the 1950s and '60s.

All of these items are not part of some inflexible master plan, Riford said. One might happen, while some others might not. But local businesspeople and elected officials at looking at the possibilities.

For Riford, the plan is attractive because it would draw more tourists to the city. Tourists, unlike industrial or commercial clients, come to visit, leave their dollars and don't ask anyone to build them a road, give them a tax break or educate their children.

But tourists also represent other possibilities. Someone attending a convention here might realize that South Mountain isn't the barrier to getting here from Baltimore or Washington, D.C., that they thought it was. Maybe they might see this area as a nice place to live, or better, to relocate their business or add a new branch. Creative businesspeople looking at the area with a fresh eye might see opportunities that wouldn't occur to someone who's used to things the way they are.

Now I'm sure that someone reading this now is already thinking of reasons why none of this will work, why even thinking about it is a waste of time. Before you trash it, however, consider that people like Tom Riford and Richard Phoebus are spending hours and hours of their own time determining what's possible and what isn't. You may not agree with what they come up with, but at least acknowledge that instead of working on projects to enrich themselves, they're looking at how to help this community prosper instead.

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