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County walks fitful path down Memorial

August 16, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND

Commentary

Well, we come by it honestly.

I am referring, of course, to a Hagerstown woman's recent research into Memorial Boulevard, which - after more than a year of angry controversy - proved conclusively that we've always been Just Plain Nuts.

I blame Willie Mays. He's the one, after all, who turned out to be maybe the greatest baseball player ever and who also played his first game as a pro in Hagerstown some 55 years ago. Because of this, all of Hagerstown got in a huge fight over how Memorial Boulevard got its name.

To an outsider, this might seem like a singularly odd chain of events, but to us it makes perfect sense, and since we already know the background, I'll skip ahead to the woman's findings, as reported in the July 31 Herald-Mail.

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In short, the history of Memorial Boulevard can't be good news for the visionary people who want to redevelop Hagerstown's East End. Because back in 1916, there was another grand plan in Hagerstown that would have connected all regions of the city with flowering parkways and a corridor of economic development and green space extending from City Park along what is now Memorial Boulevard to the bridge over Antietam Creek.

But - and stop me if this sounds familiar - the whole project got torpedoed by bickering, infighting and public complaining.

Eventually, a road was built, but it wasn't the shining testament to our ingenuity and vision that it was supposed to be - or, as the value of a good road was described by Sewerage Commissioner William Wingert: "Most of the grandeurs of ancient Greece and Rome have been destroyed, but you and I may still tread the Appian Way as did the Caesars and St. Paul of old."

I'm trying to think of any of our local elected folks today who might be tempted to wax poetic about the Appian Way. I mean, we're lucky if they've heard of the United Way. Not to say historical knowledge among holders of public office peaked early in Washington County, but if you're waiting for one of our current exalted leaders to quote Pliny the Elder, you might as well grab a Snickers.

What passed for economic development in those days is interesting as well. Plans for growth included an electric plant, an incinerator and, my favorite, a "garbage reduction plant" that would "boil garbage before it is fed to swine."

All right, microprocessor technology it's not, but in its day, I suppose it was the cutting edge of economic development, and probably was eligible for all sorts of tax credits and land giveaways. Wouldn't want that swine-porridge plant to get away to a neighboring state.

Although why a hog would care whether his garbage had been boiled or not, I am not in a position to say. Before we laugh too hard, however, I must point out that the differences between a garbage reduction plant and First Urban Fiber (or whatever they're calling it these days) are uncomfortably slim. Except for the fact, of course, that the garbage cooker would undoubtedly work, while the fiber plant ... oh, never mind.

But those starry-eyed over how grand and magnificent a garbage boiling plant might have been were just left to wonder "what if?" because the whole plan came tumbling down in a storm of governmental infighting and citizen protest. Apparently there was no "2-plus-2 Committee" between City Hall and the Sewage Commission, because the council took the grown-up step of reducing the commissioners' pay from $600 to $1. Whether these poor bureaucratic ancients lost any other annual compensation, such as "one comely wench of virtue true" is unclear, but it does kind of remind me of how local lawmakers tried to get back at the PenMar board by kicking out the nonresidents.

Nine months later, all three Sewerage Commissioners resigned, blaming a quarrelsome mayor for their troubles and unrealized dreams. It would be another seven decades before a Washington County sewage commission would once gain rise to a noble prominence that would allow it to run up a $56 million debt.

In fact, our forefathers' (or, as an actual letter to the editor had it the other day, "our four fathers") great plans all disintegrated into the one issue that sits before us today: What type of monument Memorial Boulevard should have and what wording should be on the plaque.

Back then, they couldn't decide; all they could do was fight about it.

But it appears our City Council today might actually take action on the issue sometime before the end of their term, which should give heart to everyone else who has plans for the city. Yes, this means we might actually get our new hospital and our new East End developments - sometime in 2090.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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