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County government's exit would devastate downtown

August 12, 2005

The Washington County Commissioners, flush with new revenue from rising property assessments, are studying whether it would be a good idea to spend $8 million to move most county government operations to the former Allegheny Energy building on Downsville Pike.

This might not be the dumbest idea we've heard in the past 20 years, but it certainly makes the Top 10. The Hagerstown City Council and every county resident who cares about saving tax dollars should join in one loud voice to shout "No way!"

It is a bad proposal, not only because it would devastate downtown Hagerstown, but also because it would eliminate a prime site that should be marketed to a taxpaying, job-providing company.

City officials should protest this because for more than 20 years, it has been part of the city's economic development strategy to make downtown the center of government operations.

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That's why the Department of Social Services was moved into the old Woodmen of the World building on North Potomac Street. That's why the Maryland Job Service was moved from the edge of downtown into a building on the northeast quadrant of Public Square.

That's why the new District Court building was built on Baltimore Street, instead of at the location that the court system officials originally wanted on Wesel Boulevard.

And let's not forget the University System of Maryland building. All of these moves were lobbied for by former Mayors Steve Sager and Bob Bruchey.

Let's give City Council members Kristin Aleshire and Lew Metzner the benefit of the doubt for their low-key responses to the idea on Wednesday. Perhaps they hadn't thought about the effect the withdrawal of all that activity would have on downtown.

Bruchey and Sager wouldn't take this lying down and neither should the current mayor and council. Every joint initiative between the two governments should come to a halt until this plan hits the round file.

As for the economic-development aspect of this idea, the 49-acre site includes a multi-story office building and easy access to Interstate 70. It would be perfect for what Allegheny Energy used it for, a corporate headquarters.

Now imagine the same corporation being asked to re-use the space the county is vacating downtown. Corporate officials probably would be too polite to laugh out loud, but they would no doubt be amused.

As for the proposed purpose of improving the efficiency of county operations, aren't county employees using e-mail to communicate now?

If employees do have to go from one office to another, it's a trek of about one block. As for the issue of supervision, these are adults, not schoolchildren who have to be watched constantly.

If we're talking about anyone's convenience, it should be the people who live in and around the downtown and can walk to county offices now.

Before any move is made, citizens need to ask why the county government didn't explore this before Allegheny sold the building in May; it was on the market for more than a year. Back then, Allegheny officials said the developer, Oak Ridge XVII LLC, planned to carry on the power company's plans for a high-end business park.

Things have changed, apparently. Taxpayers should demand to know what the sale price was then, and how much higher it will be now that the county missed its first chance to buy.

Finally, if the county has $8 million to spend on new accommodations, does that mean we can assume that the county has enough money to fund all necessary road and school construction and maybe, just maybe, give taxpayers stung by the recent rise in property assessments some relief?

Some years ago, a developer proposed building a department store, suspended on stilts, above Public Square. This idea is not quite that nutty, but it's close. Let's hear no more about it.

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