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City needs 'destination' to generate traffic

September 04, 2005|By Bob Maginnis

Not long ago, a member of the latest generation of downtown businesspeople asked me about the history of downtown redevelopment because, I assume, the new group doesn't want to reinvent the wheel - or repeat the mistakes of the past.

They came to the right person. One of the benefits of being around for a long time is that you remember stuff. When I started at The Herald-Mail in 1973, there was no Valley Mall, although it was already on someone's drawing board.

Downtown seemed healthy enough then. Among other things, there were two department stores, three variety stores, men and women's shoe shops, a piano shop where you could take music lessons and a couple of furniture stores.

Then the mall sucked the life out of downtown, although, to be fair, the victim didn't do enough to defend itself.

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Although Valley Mall opened in 1974, it wasn't until four years later that downtown businesspeople heard a consultant's report on how they could fight back. Hammer, Siler, George & Associates of Washington, D.C. told them that they needed a downtown revitalization organization.

That suggestion languished until 1981, when John Sower, director of the National Development Council, proposed creating a new tax district downtown to raise money for ads and other promotions.

The Downtown Business and Professional Association decided it didn't want to pay for its half of the $6,500 report, with DPBA's officers saying they'd heard all those suggestions before, but just hadn't followed through.

But then-Mayor Donald Frush looked at the mall operation and saw that mall stores had an advantage because they were required to pay for part of joint promotions there. He was determined to bring such a system downtown.

But when it came to deciding who would pay such a fee, the administration flinched. Instead of charging the property owners, who might fight the idea in court, it was decided to levy the Downtown Assessment District tax on the business operators instead.

Because some businesses couldn't afford much, the fee was kept fairly low. That still didn't satisfy some merchants, who wasted valuable time and energy fighting the tax instead of working together.

DAD persevered for awhile and its signature event was a street festival called Hager-Fest, which brought people downtown to patronize a variety of vendors who were, for the most part, not downtown merchants.

Finally, just as the Centre at Hagerstown was about to open in 1999, DAD disbanded, an action I compared at the time to General Custer throwing down his weapons just as the Indians were massing for their attack.

That same year there was some hope for a real downtown "destination attraction," when a group led by historian Dennis Frye proposed turning the old Baldwin House, now home to the University System of Maryland campus, into a Civil War museum.

The Washington County Commissioners committed $37,500 to study the idea in August 1999, telling the governor that the museum would "provide an economic boost beyond our comprehension."

But when it looked as if USM campus would go out to the Allegheny Energy site on the Downsville Pike - and take the Frostburg State University operation that had been downtown for years with it - Mayor Robert Bruchey and former Mayor Steve Sager jumped into action.

They convinced then-Gov. Parris Glendening to pick the downtown site, and while it is a beautifully renovated building now, it is not yet generating the foot traffic that downtown needs to prosper. The museum group proposed relocating to Antietam Street, where they said they would tear down a number of existing buildings for their $60 million structure. The plan was too controversial and the proposal faded away.

The one really positive thing that has happened recently is that city officials and the business community have realized that part of the solution is to create a "captive audience" of sorts for downtown business by building market-rate housing there.

Some of that will be done with government help, some just by entrepreneurs betting that downtown will be the next big thing.

Based on my years of observation, here's what I think about next steps in downtown:

n There have been enough studies done and marketing plans written so that no one need spend another dime in that area. If there is no one in place to do marketing on an ongoing basis, why pay for another plan?

n The taxing district idea made sense, but it raised too little to pay for much. Businesspeople, who often need to be in their shops full-time, need to decide whether they want to hire someone to do promotions, or cross their fingers in hopes that someone will come in the door.

n The Internet wasn't around in 1974, but it should be in heavy use now by downtown businesses. If I want to see what today's specials are at my favorite downtown restaurant or peruse china patterns at the Carol & Company gift shop at 11 p.m., why shouldn't I have that option?

Shops and their addresses and phone numbers are listed on the city's Web site, but not the detail I want if I'm looking for a wedding gift after midnight.

n Downtown shops provide special service and knowledgeable salespeople, but that won't get people in the door for the first time. That "destination attraction" I talked about earlier will, particularly if it draws people from out of town.

If you're driven 70 miles to Hagerstown to see something - a museum, perhaps - you might want to make the most of the trip and see the Hager House, the City Park and Museum of Fine Arts as well. After that, well, it's probably time for lunch and maybe a look at some of those little shops ...




Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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