Facing a new challenge

August 08, 2005|by DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

If Sharon Disque thrives on challenge, she's found one with her new job.

With her recent appointment as executive director of Hagerstown Neighborhood Development Partnership Inc., it will be Disque's job to market the City of Hagerstown and find projects within the city's business district that private developers will clamor to be involved in.

"I feel pressure as in: 'What if I fail?' I hadn't really felt pressure from other people but I do feel I've got pressure on myself," said Disque, 47, of Frederick, Md. "To me, it's a personal challenge to take a piece of real estate that has been overlooked and find a strategy to market it. It's a challenge, and I think it's creative."

The HNDP was formed in 2003 to spark rehabilitation and redevelopment of buildings in the city for residential and commercial use. The organization does not have the funds to launch major rehabilitation projects, so it seeks to select, and in some cases buy, and then market properties within the downtown area to developers capable of rehabilitating the properties for other uses.


"We look for projects that will have an impact on the community," said Disque, who started her new job in July. "The idea is to create properties that will attract people that will pay the market rate. The key to economic development is addressing the real estate needs."

Such is the case with East Baltimore Street, where the partnership bought the 2.8-acre Massey property at 28-50 E. Baltimore St. for $1 million and marketed the site.

As a result of that initial investment, Disque said, the partnership recently selected a developer to launch a $10 million revitalization project that, among several alternatives, could result in 44 new town houses.

"There are certain areas of the city where a project could easily add 150 units and that will definitely perpetuate change," she said. "I think, within five years, you could see substantial change in the community."

Although the job is new, Disque is not a newcomer to the economic development field.

She graduated in 1980 with a degree in economics from the University of Virginia, where she met husband Carl Disque, a Hagerstown attorney and chairman of the Western Maryland Blues Fest. She recently earned her master's degree in real estate from Johns Hopkins University.

After graduating from the University of Virginia, she worked for the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission from 1986 to 1998. While there, she worked with economic development coordinator Beverly Baccala on several large-scale projects, including the Staples distribution center.

Disque left that job to accept a position as director of industrial and economic development with CSX Transportation. In that job, Disque was responsible for helping private companies find places along CSX's rail lines for development in a region stretching from Eastern Pennsylvania through Southern New Jersey, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Maryland and West Virginia. She worked on several projects in Western Maryland, including the Lowe's distribution center in Hagerstown.

Timothy R. Troxell, executive director of the EDC, said he believes Disque will be able to make an impact because of her experience working on development projects both with the EDC and with CSX.

Troxell and Disque collaborated on several projects while he oversaw economic development initiatives for Allegheny Power and she was at the EDC.

"Sharon is a very dedicated individual who really understands economic and community development," Troxell said. "She has a broad background and working knowledge in the field."

Troxell said Disque has an important role as the city seeks to bring about a revitalization because of the importance housing will play in supporting commercial development.

"I think for there to be continued commercial improvements downtown, you need to have the residential people down here with disposable income to maintain those commercial enterprises," he said.

Disque said that as land and property values soar on the fringes of the city, she expects the downtown area to re-emerge as an attractive place to live. In addition to stimulating large development projects, she said she is hoping to establish a grant program that will help homeowners in the city make improvements to their properties with funds they would not have to pay back if they live in their homes for a certain period of time.

"That way, we're encouraging buyers to move in," she said. "What we want to see is an increase in the quality of the housing stock."

The program is being modeled after one administered by the Hagerstown Home Store, which the partnership acquired in July. The Home Store provides resources and advice to first-time homebuyers in the city, and Disque said she believes the two entities will be able to work in concert with each other to encourage more residents to live in the downtown area.

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