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City dealing with more important things than county's move

August 21, 2005|By Tim Rowland

Given a public forum in which to go mental over the Washington County Commissioners' proposed move out of the downtown, Hagerstown City Council members on Tuesday were remarkably restrained.

Council member Kelly Cromer calmly asked that the issue be placed on an upcoming agenda. The most pointed words came from Mayor Dick Trump, and even his pronouncement that the county act "isn't what builds strong relationships" came amidst more positive pronouncements about building stronger city-county relationships.

Even council member Penny Nigh saved her spit and vinegar for gangs. Or the homeless. Or homeless gangs, or something like that. Lew Metzner was more concerned with the need for brevity in public speeches. Lew Metzner, who would make Cato seem about as talkative as the Marlboro Man? Whatever.

Anyone tuning in hoping for a full council meltdown (hi there) was sadly disappointed. In fact, for the well-being of the city, only one thing that could have been better than a fight was no fight. Which is exactly what happened.

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The council's grownup reaction to the county's pronouncement is hopefully the result of two things: One, the new council has begun to settle down a little, following a bitter and highly charged spring election. And two, they've seen the results of knee-jerk reactions to proposed city changes, and learned that it isn't always pretty.

On the first point, the council and mayor (and political opponent) Trump made a credible effort at congeniality with each other, at least publicly. The mayor seems more relaxed, and also seems to have learned - the hard way, perhaps - that the council members must be respected and even deferred to.

The Republican slate of which Trump was a part was accused, among other things, of being the tool of county interests. Yet it was Trump who took the roll of defending the city this week, mildly scolding the county for the surprise announcement that it might abandon the downtown. For the first time on anything that mattered, Trump and the council were on the same side.

And apparently it won't be the last. Nigh, Metzner and Trump all properly expressed interest in opening up the city/county 2-plus-2 to a rotation of council members, so the entire board is plugged in to ongoing negotiations. The council was receptive to a staff plan that has the mayor excited: A neighborhood revitalization plan, and an intriguing idea for community parks and parking in the interiors of city blocks. The mayor even proposed a little tour of a city block and the council members agreed.

That's good news. Small victories perhaps, but it beats the situation of a couple of months ago, when it appeared the wheels might come off the council cart.

As for the proposed county move, clearly this council has learned that measured reactions are a good thing. That or they're just exhausted from the hospital battle and have no stomach for another similar fight.

Besides, the city has bigger fish to fry at the moment. Nigh's legitimate concern, for example, is that the city is annexing land from the county that the county has zoned for apartments - more apartments being the last thing the city needs, at the moment.

As damaging as a county move might be, it is of small consequence next to the city's more important mission of filling the town with job-holding homeowners. (Which speaks to Nigh's initially mentioned point; potential homeowners will not be encouraged to move into a city overrun with gangs and homeless.)

If the city can win some concessions from the county by agreeing not to fight the move, it might be advantageous to do so. In fact, moving the county's seat to Halfway, or whatever it would be considered, might be a long-term advantage for the city. As Commissioner John Munson noted, it would get a sizable amount of property back on city tax rolls.

But more important, if the city rebirth is for real - and a couple of savvy, big-time developers are betting that it is, quietly buying property and charting their courses - then the last thing you want is nontaxable, government offices clogging up your free enterprise. The day might come when the administration building could be a valuable addition to the tax base.

And the Baltimore street planning building could become the Civil War museum Cromer has in the back of her mind, or even a valuable, inner city park.

Indeed, if there's one thing it could be argued the city has too much of downtown (aside from maybe bail bondsmen) it would be government office space. Government keeps a captive work force downtown, but does little more. Courts and Social Services don't attract high rollers. Government has been a suitable stopgap in the lean years, but a truly vibrant downtown depends on commerce.

You want people who are alive. People who are going to school, eating out, seeing plays, buying and selling things. Folks looking for a good time don't come downtown to get a building permit.

Whether the council recognizes this, or whether it is just laying low and keeping its powder dry, at least their restraint has been encouraging. And so is the fact that they can remain civil during the course of a public meeting.

It may be a veneer. It may not last. It may have all blown up by the time you read this. But whether the council believes it or not, deep down, we are not rooting for a fight. We understand this is a crucial time in the city's history. A time when, grating for them as it may be, the mayor and council will be applauded for working together.

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