County move an obviously bad idea

August 21, 2005|By Bob Maginnis

The Washington County Commissioners might not be getting much flak for their proposal to explore moving most county offices out of downtown Hagerstown for the same reason that a husband doesn't tell his wife that the new dress she's purchased looks hideous.

In both cases, the people casting a critical eye aren't sure the flak they'd get for being honest would be worth it. And in both cases, the offensive idea and the dress might end up consigned to their respective owners' closets, never to see the light of day again.

That could explain the Hagerstown Mayor and Council's low-key reaction to an idea that would change more than 20 years of planning Hagerstown as a center for government services. Perhaps city officials know that as the commissioners think about it, they'll realize what a dumb idea it is.

For example, what would they tell prospective industries about the county seat?


"Yes, this is Hagerstown, which we have supported in the same way Baltimore Colts' owner Robert Irsay supported the City of Baltimore - by moving out. But don't follow our example, because it's really a good place to be."

Or how would they justify previous investments?

"Yes, we're contributing a ton of money to the new South Potomac Street parking deck, but just to make sure it doesn't fill up too quickly, we're buying ourselves another building and a parking lot out in the suburbs."

And what will they tell constituents concerned about rising property tax assessments?

"Yes, we know you're stressed about your taxes, but can you imagine our pain, having to walk a block across downtown for meetings?"

And what would they say to their own Economic Development Commission?

"Of course this will help downtown. There's nothing like a reduction in foot traffic to really boost business. And hey, we'll be sparing you the effort of marketing a building that might attract the same type of tenant it had previously in Allegheny Energy - a large corporation in need of a headquarters."

And what will they say to the citizens of Hagerstown, who would have to get on an interstate highway to visit government offices?

"We know, but gasoline isn't $3 a gallon yet."

I called the Maryland Association of Counties to ask whether there is any other county in Maryland that has moved its offices outside the county seat. They couldn't tell me, because the staff was all in Ocean City for MACO's summer conference.

I hope that when our commissioners return, someone will ask them whether they shopped this idea around to other counties' leaders and what the reaction was. Perhaps other counties' officials will be too polite to say anything, perhaps not.

But even if other counties have done this, it's still a bad idea. The revival of downtown is not a done deal yet, despite the arrival of the University System of Maryland. County offices generate support for the restaurants and retail establishments there.

When people are clamoring for more office space downtown - instead of building more of it on Eastern Boulevard - then the commissioners can think about consolidating their own offices.

Perhaps they could purchase the Hamilton Hotel just across the street from where the county board meets now, or build something new on the space where the old Hagerstown Laundry building was torn down on Franklin Street.

Another possibility: The multi-story structure that housed Manny's Oriental Rugs on Washington Street is vacant now and even has some parking behind it.

Some officials have told me privately that I'm getting too worked up over this thing, that it's only an idea. Well, Hagerstown's ice rink was only an idea, set in motion by some well-meaning people who didn't think through the process of how it would operate.

If they had, it might have been placed near an interstate exit, where it would be more convenient for skaters from other states. If they had, there might not be a need for a yearly city subsidy,

The tough question that those not worried about hurting the commissioners' feelings should ask is: Who will this benefit? Is this something that will improve citizens' lives, or it just for the convenience of county employees?

At a time when taxes are rising because of increasing property values and the commissioners have yet to provide any relief, I cannot believe that this expenditure of millions of dollars for new quarters would make sense on any level.

If doing this was a good idea, the property should have been pursued before it was purchased by the developer. After all, it was on the market for more than a year. It's tough to believe that if the developer paid (for example) $5 million for the property that he wouldn't want at least $5.5 million now.

Finally, here's something I never thought I'd say: Steve Sager, the city needs your help. Now that you're no longer the mayor or even a city resident, you have nothing to lose by telling these guys the truth - this is a bad idea.

The Herald-Mail Articles