After a decades-long drought, Hagerstown poised for success

December 26, 2004|by John Schnebly

This is an article about hope; hope for the City of Hagerstown. Hope, not for the modern metropolitan Hagerstown of Black Rock Estates, or the Centre at Hagerstown, or Valley Mall.

This is an article of hope for the old Hagerstown; the one embraced by Oak Hill and the Terrace on the north side, and by the block company and the livestock yard on the south side. That downtown place where all the community once assembled on Fridays and Saturdays to shop, to pay their bills, greet one another and to entertain themselves.

For the better part of two decades we've been sitting around telling ourselves that growth is coming, that growth is coming. Well, I have to tell you, at long last something big is happening, and it's happening in old Hagerstown.

It's a phenomenon driven by the rock-solid underpinning of capital investment. Have you noticed any of what's afoot around you? Of course you've seen the $14 million-plus renovation of the Baldwin House on West Washington Street that will soon open as the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown campus.


But have you followed any of the other action? A Frederick developer has bought the old Goodwill property on North Prospect and is converting it into affordable office suites. An investor from Timonium, Md., has bought two buildings on Public Square, an apartment building on East Washington Street and has an option on the Schindel-Roher building on South Potomac Street.

There is local speculation in the downtown as well. The Bowman Group is working on a project on South Potomac Street that includes offices and a parking deck. Another local developer has just purchased the old Nicodemus-Allfirst bank office on the corner of West Washington Street and Summit Avenue.

As we all know, money invested like this is following the scent of profit. What seems clear is that this diverse group of in and out of town developers is sensing a turnaround in downtown Hagerstown.

For one thing, the price of lots and old buildings in the city's core are becoming strikingly affordable. As the price of similar facilities in Frederick, and the cost of raw land in the Frederick and Washington counties seems to escalate by the day, the attraction of the downtown seems to grow.

And what are the possibilities that may occur with this turnaround? For years the downtown has been in decline, supported mainly by an array of banking, government and attorneys' offices. Now it seems possible other types of uses may find a home downtown.

We may be on the brink of seeing home buyers from Frederick and points east embrace the historic residential architecture of such places as South Prospect, South Potomac and North Potomac streets. This phenomenon certainly occurred in Frederick 20 years ago, and, if we are truly the next stop on the commuter line heading west, it has a good chance of happening here.

With the construction of the "Bowman Deck" in the first block of South Potomac Street, we may be reaching the point of having the quantity and distribution of parking spaces necessary to erase the barriers that have held back a lot of commercial and retail activity in the downtown. One hundred years after the arrival of the automobile, we finally are catching up on this vital need for the city.

And finally, the possibility now exists that developers will seize the opportunity to consolidate any number of the small 18th- and 19th-century parcels in downtown, and forge them into sites that work to modern scale and accommodate modern infrastructure. Take a look at the area around the old Hagerstown Laundry site on West Franklin Street. It's not hard to imagine the creation of a new lot at this location that spans a quarter to one half of a block. If this can occur, builders may start to realize the city can offer sites with the size and flexibility to compete with development tracts in the suburbs.

All of this activity and all of these possibilities seem to point to an encouraging 2005 for downtown Hagerstown. Let's hope these trends are harbingers of positive change, and proof that our biggest hopes for the city are coming true.

John Schnebly, a former Hagerstown city councilman and Washington County commissioner is a Hagerstown resident who writes for the Herald-Mail.

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