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Along with fighting the bad development, it pays to encourage the good

June 20, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND

A fair question fair the Republican slate of candidates who tried unsuccessfully this spring to take control of City Hall, was whether they cared more about the City of Hagerstown or the interests of the hospital and other pro-development agendas.

The thoughtful reader, however, will have already noticed that the question is somewhat flawed, because it supposes that the interests of the city and the interests of developers are diametrically opposed.

It also implies that developer profits are somehow inversely proportional to the health and well-being of the city as a whole.

As Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast."

Short of some unforeseen economic flat tire, it's a relatively safe assumption that the rest of the decade will see large-scale developments in Washington County, and - unless the City Council blows it, which is always a possibility - some jaw-dropping progress in Hagerstown itself.

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Will some rich developers get even richer? Yup. Should we have a problem with that? Not necessarily. Plenty of times the interests of developers and citizens go hand in hand.

For example, there's been some indignation over a proposed road with a proposed bridge across the Antietam connecting Eastern Boulevard to the proposed hospital at Robinwood.

The conspiracy theory is this: The "fat cats" who own property in this area also have the ear of hospital brass. So they lobbied for the new hospital to be located at Robinwood - over more suitable sites - which would force construction of the road and bridge, opening their lands to gobs of new construction and gobs of new wealth. The taxpayers would build the road for the enrichment of private developers.

I sincerely hope this theory is true, because it would be the only instance of clear thinking that's occurred since this whole hospital relocation mess began.

But to believe this theory, we would also have to believe in a degree of organization and ingenuity that, to my knowledge, has never before transpired in the history of Washington County.

But for the moment, let's assume it's all true. The hospital is in the second-best location. Taxpayers pay for the new road. Private developers use this road to make money.

Yes, it smacks of back-room dealmaking and people putting private interests ahead of public interests, and I understand people who may argue that it isn't right.

But personally, I would count your back and mine as among those being scratched.

A new hospital benefits us all, regardless of where it is situated. Some revisionists at the city say the site at the old Allegheny Energy property would have been better - and that would have been a fine argument - if they had made it when the new hospital was first proposed. But remember, the city's first and lengthy reaction was to suggest a number of second-rate downtown locations, while throwing roadblocks in the way of any out-of-town site.

As for the new road, it's needed now to alleviate Robinwood traffic jams - whether the hospital is built there or not. And this road has unofficially been penciled in for some time, because it is in a logical location. It would serve thousands of people a day, not just one or two developers. This road would be good public policy, regardless of who benefits.

And of course those developers might just provide services and businesses we might want. And this development will pay taxes of its own.

Much as I would like a developer's first question to be, "How will this project benefit Tim?" I have to acknowledge his first question is going to be, "How will this project benefit me?" The sooner we accept this and get over it, the sooner we realize that working with developers is more likely to produce positive results than always working against them.

Some developments are overweighed in total by community interests - the Mount Aetna quarry expansion and the Funkstown Wal-Mart come to mind - and it is proper that these bad ideas be confronted.

But there is also a sizable number of developers and business folks out there who are proud of the community and want to do what's best, not just for themselves, but for the county as a whole.

We are right to keep our eye on developers; we are wrong to assume they are always up to no good.

This distinction is going to become more and more important in the coming months and years, because development will come no matter what, and if we run the decent ones out of town, their places are likely to be taken by those who are much worse.

It's a natural thing to envy success, and maybe even be a little resentful of it. But when developers and business men and women succeed, the community succeeds along with them. Our jobs are more secure. And because development creates a demand for labor, our jobs begin to pay more. If we have something to sell, there are more people with money who may be interested. If have something we need to buy, we're served by better stores and have access to more products, nicer clothes, better entertainment and more variety at mealtime.

Growth can be good or bad. It should be our job not just to identify bad growth and fight it, but to identify good growth and encourage it. Developers who pay attention to the community and show care in their planning, architecture and landscaping should be, dare we say, applauded.

Occasionally patting a developer on the back may be counterintuitive, but if you look around, you can see that some of them deserve it. And if the community is to thrive, they are the ones we should be making friends with, not enemies.

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