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'Hagerstown Initiative' could make city a model for success

December 05, 2004

It was the most unlikely of gatherings - a group of planners without illusions.

True enough, not all of the 20-some people who got together at the Frostburg Center in Hagerstown this week were planners - they described themselves as everything from developer to architect, to Realtor, to gadfly - but they shared the common wish to see our region grow in a way that is both orderly and profitable. And they share the realistic knowledge that this is a wish that will take far more than the tapping of ruby slippers to grant.

Only a few in this eclectic group, which bills itself as the "Hagerstown Initiative," are local. They represented agencies and interests from as far off as Connecticut and Oregon, and have some tremendous projects and credentials under their belts. Obviously there were some great minds in the room, which begs the question, what were they doing here?

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The answer is somewhat staggering. They believe the demographic and cultural upheavals that are happening in Hagerstown are happening in countless small cities nationwide. And they believe if Hagerstown is lost, much of our great national fabric will be lost as well.

And by "lose," they mean tangled, slipshod soulless development thrown up and left to ooze throughout the countryside, with no mind paid to supporting schools or a vibrant city core.

They are not anti-growth, nor do they like being called altruistic. America, after all, is based on profit, but they do not believe those profits have to come at the price of trashing the community.

Their target region is the "ring" of communities 50 to 100 miles from major cities from Winchester, Va., up through Chambersburg and Hanover, Pa. And Hagerstown, of course, is in the crosshairs, or as they call it, "the center of the cyclone." It's also a decent laboratory of sorts, because of the city's old industrial heritage and new educational center.

The downtown university campus, they believe, is a great foundation. "Colleges in cornfields take all the energy out of the center of the community," said Alan Feinberg, President of Central Maryland Development in Frederick, and organizer of Tuesday's group.

Feinberg, who owns a building in Hagerstown on Potomac Street, became a developer out of "total frustration." He had worked as a public planner to the east, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that government had neither the means nor the will to effectively handle growth.

He concluded the people best equipped to manage growth are, oddly enough, the developers themselves. Some developers will do the right thing on their own. Others will do whatever makes them the most profit, regardless of the negative effect it might have on the overall community. So the solution is this: Enact policy that makes the right thing and the most profitable thing one and the same.

Not that they're here with any idea of bossing around our elected leaders - or us, for that matter. They understand the difference between Washington and Montgomery counties, and they understand our suspicions of outsiders bearing edicts.

"This is the spine of our country," Feinberg said. "The people here are fiercely independent. They are the core of the country and the strength of the country. But it is also the Achilles Heel of this country if they don't get an education (in community building) - because if the Cumberland Valley can't make sense of it all, the rest of the country won't be able to either."

Indeed, plenty of towns fit Hagerstown's profile - old factory towns outside the big cities that have lost their industry and been "neutron bombed:" The buildings remain standing, but empty.

Into this vacuum then rushes waves of retirees and commuters and fresh-starters who have tired of big city life or been forced out by high prices. Not used to any growth, much less cataclysmic growth, these communities have no plans or policy or mindset to prevent themselves from foundering.

It's the belief of the Hagerstown Initiative that these communities can be saved, not so much by force of government, but by force of economics. For example, Feinberg says some property owners in the city - including one of his associates - have been painted with the "slumlord" brush, basically because market forces gave them no other option.

There has been much local hype about impact and development fees, which effectively are taxes on improvements. In a city, that's backwards. The greater tax burden should be placed on empty, unimproved properties, which in turn would economically discourage the speculative purchase of a property with the idea of sitting on it for 20 years waiting for the value to go up.

Members of the Hagertown Initiative have literally a world of experience, planning and otherwise (in what other room could you find a past editor of the Utne Reader, a major developer of Reston, Va., and a former backup musician for James Taylor, I am not prepared to say) who have an understanding of how things work.

By all appearances, the Hagerstown Initiative has the potential to play the role of Hagerstown's Jeeves, ever the servant, but gently offering guidance, expertise and financing opportunities that can ensure a happy ending.

We've always had the attitude that you can either please the developers or you can please the people who want a scenic and pleasant place to live. But here comes a group telling us that it just might be possible to please both - and make Hagerstown a model community for the nation in the process. That would be an offer we could hardly refuse.

Editor's note: Anyone interested in talking to Feinberg about the Hagerstown Initiative may e-mail him at FEINDESIGN@aol.com.

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