Let's reclaim our lost glory

August 28, 2005|By John Schnebly

The announcement several weeks ago by the Washington County Commissioners that they were investigating the possibility of moving their downtown offices to the old Allegheny Energy campus on Downsville Pike took me by surprise. It shouldn't have. What the heck, perhaps we should just proceed to the full "nuclear option" and move the state and city offices out there as well, and completely eviscerate the county seat.

We could reverse more than 30 years of cooperative government policy, and get on with the work of creating a nondescript suburban community full of cul de sacs and strip malls that we all would come to loathe.

The Herald-Mail's reaction to this idea was entirely proper. This has to be one of the silliest ideas of the past several decades. Sadly, though, it seems indicative of a self-destructive psychosis gripping our civic conscience for many years.

Where did it all go wrong? Our heritage did not predict this. We were once a community of occasional liberal thought. The first inhabitants of Washington County built an incredibility prosperous agricultural industry renowned for its devotion to progressive farm-management practices.


Later, the railroads came, and Hagerstown became a great transportation hub. With the rails came a boom in manufacturing that lasted well into the last century.

Names like Moller, Pangborn, and Fairchild were a source of local pride, but more important were famous nationally because they represented quality and innovation.

Along the way, the community engaged in practices and building activities that reflected a sophistication that would belie our rural setting. Yes, at the turn of the 20th century, we organized a free library that transported books to readers in the most remote sections of the county. Around 1930, someone erected the skyscraping Alexander Hotel. Is there a piece of architecture anything like this in Frederick or Westminster?

And who among us cannot celebrate our beautiful City Park, our stunning Museum of Fine Arts and the existence of the Maryland Symphony? These were not ideas that came from leaders trapped in narrow thinking,

Lately, though, we seem to be struggling with many of our local decisions. Just consider the tortured tale of the PenMar Development Corp., and our years of angst over such initiatives as replacing our dilapidated stadium and building a new hospital. As one local observer commented to me, "things just seem to linger here forever."

Perhaps we will soon be positively influenced by those outsiders who are now streaming over the mountains seeking affordable housing and investment bargains. Hopefully, though, we can come to our own senses by making keener selections in the election process and by supporting creative businesspeople as they attempt to bring change to the community.

In the political arena, we have come to honor, too often, the candidate who says, "I didn't, I am not, and I will not." Don't get me wrong, I'm not plugging the foolish use of public resources. However, many times, these political refuseniks play the fiscal responsibility card as an excuse to do, at best, absolutely nothing, or, at worst, something disastrous.

In the next election, let's give a good listen to candidates who articulate proactive ideas for the community and who celebrate the government's considerable catalytic power to move things along.

In addition, let's give serious attention to community leaders like Dick Phoebus who are diligently working on positive ideas such as East End redevelopment in the City of Hagerstown. It's hard to say what will come of Phoebus' example.

Perhaps we'll see modern market- rate housing being constructed near the downtown for the first time in decades. Perhaps we'll see a private/public initiative to build a new community stadium. Perhaps we'll see creative reuses for some of our older, out-of-date industrial properties.

Whatever the outcomes, these attempts at positive change deserve our energetic appreciation. And they stand in stark contrast to the debilitating thought patterns seeping from some officials in county government just a few weeks ago.

Former County Commissioner John Schnebly is a Funkstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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