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A welcome to new county residents

December 26, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

If you have moved to Washington County in the past year and no one has said it yet, let me welcome you. If you have been puzzled by some of the things which have happened since you arrived, let me give you some background from someone who came here 30 years ago.

Perhaps you are like I was in 1973, riding over South Mountain on Interstate 70, looking down at the farms and houses and wondering if people whose families had been here for generations would welcome me.

I needn't have worried. What I found were generous people who were quick to help - if and when they could see the need. Someone whose house burns down is quickly restocked with clothes, appliances and life's other necessities, while appeals like the United Way, whose recipients are not as visible, have sometimes struggled to meet their goals.

Washington County residents have a strong work ethic as well. Over the years, I have interviewed at least three people who each worked for local companies for 50 years. All told me they kept at it because they liked the job, their fellow employees and their customers.

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There's a strong sense of place here as well. Candidates for office often emphasize that they've been lifelong residents, leaving only for a stint in college or the armed forces. The Johns Hopkins University has done health studies here in part because so many families have stayed here generation after generation.

But for all its pluses, many in Washington County are afflicted with what one advertising consultant working to promote downtown Hagerstown called "the backward lament."

Simply stated, these folks remember an earlier time as better than the present. And even though they know that change is inevitable, they hope that somehow, against all odds, that something will happen to make it unnecessary. It's the same reason people postpone writing their will, reasoning that if they don't think about the worst, it may never happen.

The result of that reluctance to look ahead? For one thing, the current population surge caught some people here by surprise because, over the last three decades, every time conditions seemed ripe for rapid population growth, something like a recession or a big spike in inflation snuffed it out.

People got accustomed to slow growth and began to feel South Mountain was a barrier that would not be breached by a horde of commuters. It's easy to believe that if you've ever crossed the mountaintop in winter, when a fog as thick and white as Santa's beard descends, or the road ices up. An occasional trip I can take, but a daily commute I wouldn't want.

If you believe growth isn't going to occur, then there's less pressure to look ahead. You might even find yourself rationalizing that hey, the old schools were built to last, weren't they, and if some of the skinny little cart paths we call roads get a coat of blacktop regularly, well, at least we kept the taxes down, didn't we?

Some absolutely dumb things were done in years gone by. When the federal and state government offered to build an interstate-type bypass east of Hagerstown in the early 1970s, the local delegation to the Maryland General Assembly said "no," on the grounds it would take up too much farmland. But no serious effort at farmland preservation came until years later.

The City of Hagerstown placed its downtown on the National Register of Historic Places, making it more complicated to do renovations, but then failed to put together a tourism program to capitalize on the city center's historic look.

(Other historic properties have been demolished without much protest from the general public, including the 1774 Kammerer House, torn down in 1999.)

The latest mistake - and one related to that backward lament - is local governments' assumption (until very recently) that the slow growth of the past 10 years wouldn't speed up in the foreseeable future.

That assumption was knocked in the head when homebuyers like you were priced out of places like Frederick County, Md., and Loudoun County, Va. But you still wanted a house, which meant there was a market. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, homebuilders abhor the idea that there's a willing customer they can't serve. And so they came west, where the regulation is not as strict as counties to the east, nor are fees as high.

So here you are. In exchange for the money you saved by joining us here, there will be trade-offs. Until construction catches up with the population, your children will likely attend a school where the classes have lots of kids, and the roads you travel on will be under reconstruction for the next several years.

But I welcome you, because I know that, just as I brought something with me when I moved here, you'll bring some positive things, too.

Chances are that more new residents, especially those who will commute to the metro areas, will have college degrees or advanced technical training. Not that you can't do honest work without either, but the people with the high-salary jobs you're driving to won't send any of that work up here until we have a critical mass of highly trained workers.

We need your involvement as well. With so many generations intertwined, local people sometimes won't speak up because they fear the person criticized will retaliate against them or their relatives.

I think this happens a lot less than people believe it does, but on the chance that it might, debate is sometimes stifled. And now that we're finally growing, a muzzle on serious discussion of local affairs is the last thing we need.

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