In downtown Hagerstown, Vincent Groh shows patience is a virtue

February 28, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND

Amazing, but Hagerfest didn't work. Go figure.

Neither have about 20 new designs for Public Square, an arboretum's worth of tree varieties, special promotions or, for that matter, a couple of major new government office buildings.

The new district courthouse was a case in point. Conventional wisdom held that the architecturally magnificent but rundown buildings across the street would be bought up by lawyers and professionals and transform the block. Instead, a group of opportunistic bail bondsmen swooped in giving the strip the affectionate name of "Crime Outlets."

No matter how good the intentions, no matter how talented the people and no matter how creative the ideas, government has just never been able to move the City of Hagerstown off of ground zero by itself.


But it's moving now, courtesy of the government in part, but more importantly and more substantially, courtesy of a major push from the private sector. Hagerstown didn't - couldn't - begin its long climb out of the doldrums before now because, economically speaking, it wasn't ready.

After all these years, we're left with one somewhat startling conclusion: Vincent Groh was right.

Much derided by myself and every public official this side of the Potomac for his methods, Groh became the master at purchasing properties around the city and then forgetting all about them. I still wish he had taken more of an interest in at least stabilizing his buildings and cutting the weeds now and then, but I'm starting to believe he had more vision than the rest of us put together.

His genius is that, while the rest of us were thinking in terms of months, Groh was thinking in terms of decades. Certainly he demonstrated a lot more faith in downtown than I did. He was betting it would come back - in time. I believed it might come back, but not enough to plunk down $75,000 for a downtown building that today would bring $250,000.

We wished Groh would fix up his properties, turn them into upscale condos or bistros overflowing with pop art or something. But really, what would have been the point? They would have become just another failed enterprise because the market forces necessary for success were not yet in place.

Groh seemed to know that downtown would flourish when the market dictated, and not a second before - no matter how nice the bow in which local government tried to wrap it.

This is not to say that Groh is somehow a savior of the city - he's just a smart businessman - or that government has no hand in urban renewal. But it reinforces two valuable lessons: Government in and of itself isn't the answer, and patience is a virtue.

Hagerstown has been blessed over the past couple of decades with three smart mayors. Steve Sager laid the groundwork, Bob Bruchey brought in the University System of Maryland-Hagerstown campus and Bill Breichner has emphasized home ownership. They couldn't solve the downtown problem on their own, but they have done something just as valuable: They have ensured that when the free market did take notice of the city, the city would be ready.

Most notable is the university campus. Before the first class had even been held there, it was already having considerable impact. One is visual - half of the city's main block is no longer a blight. Two is that it has caught the attention of developers. The glittering public project drew the eye of private money.

Talk to just about any out-of-town investors in Hagerstown, and they will tell you it was the university campus that made them sit up and take notice. Well, yes - that and the unmentioned fact that there's no real money left to be made in Frederick.

In the past five years, Frederick filled up and priced out. There is no more wonderland of marvelously sculpted buildings that can be had for a song and gussied into a goldmine.

The cowboys in the stock market don't put their money into Home Depot, they look for undiscovered, if somewhat speculative, gems that can generate some fantastic returns.

And that's where Hagerstown is today. Private cash is beginning to flow into the downtown, making the same bets that Groh has been making for 20 years. Sure, it's a roll of the dice. A recession or a real estate bust could crush the budding optimism and land the city right back where it was in the late '80s.

A developer who is fixing up some office space on South Potomac Street calls those who are buying into downtown - both residential and commercial - as "pioneers." It's an apt term, because there will be some hardships in the downtown frontier until the ball fully begins to roll. Some will likely give up the ghost. But those with the capital and grit needed to hang in there may be in for a very handsome reward by decade's end.

Hagerstown resident Joe Walker wrote a lengthy treatise on the city recently, which can basically be summed up as follows: Government is no substitute for private enterprise, hard work, patience and determination. Joe Walker is right. So, as it's turned out, is Vincent Groh.

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