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With hospital off table, city, business leaders now have common goals

September 04, 2005|By TIM ROWLAND

Hagerstown City Council members could be excused for discussing their future legacy this week, since more than any other council in memory, they will be in a position to have one. Whether it will be for better worse will be up to them.

This isn't to say past councils haven't accomplished anything - they've plugged along as councils do, remaking the square every couple of years and discussing the virtues of little leaf linden trees vis a vis the Bradford pear. There have been successes (The Home Store) and failures (First Urban Fiber), and past administrations will be known for the projects they ushered in, from railroad overpasses to new government buildings to the University System of Maryland campus.

But safe to say, no council has had this opportunity to help bring downtown Hagerstown out of the doldrums that have infected it ever since the interstates routed traffic around the city 40 years ago.

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Several elements are working in this council's favor. First, a fairly decent foundation has been laid by past councils. The downtown looks nice, the university campus is up and running, City Park has been nicely dressed up, Fairgrounds Park is in place and programs are available to help people to buy city homes.

Second, market forces and timing are right. Councils nationwide have been experimenting for decades, but the lesson should be clear by now that, on their own, governments are powerless to revitalize cities. They need private help, private money and the belief on the part of private interests that investment in a downtown will yield a profit.

Higher prices in the cities and outlying suburbs have pushed new people and new money here, causing developers to see potential in Hagerstown that two decades ago they were seeing in Frederick.

Finally - and this may be the part the city has the most trouble accepting - people are lining up to help. This includes such unlikely partners as the State of Maryland, people with memberships in the hospital's health care coalition and the owners of the Hagerstown Suns.

Two very important columns - one by former councilman and commissioner John Schnebly, the other by Ed Lough, Jim Latimer and Charles Shindle - have appeared in The Herald-Mail recently. The message in both could be summed up as, "Let's roll."

The time is right, the opportunity is here, and leaders throughout the community want to join the council in moving the community forward. That's true, even of community leaders who just a few months ago were among the council's political opponents. The present council members won that battle; now it's time for all sides to come together and win the war.

The best thing the council has done recently, was to put the hospital plans in the hands of the County Commissioners. No matter what one's view of the project, it had grown too personal and too contentious for the city to rationally adjudicate. And without the hospital standing between them, suddenly the council and community business leaders will discover they have a lot more common interests than they may have imagined.

Lough and council member Penny Nigh had a well-publicized spat over the hospital. But look beyond the hospital to their commonly held interests such as affordable housing, owner-occupied homes in the city and shoring up the city's sewer plant. Perhaps if the two of them could agree never to mention the hospital in the other's presence again, they could be allies on a number of projects beneficial to the city.

Purging themselves of past unpleasantness could also open the door of opportunity for a new Suns stadium. A couple of members dive for cover whenever the word "stadium" comes into the conversation. This is because past councils have been so beaten up over the issue.

But the situation now is entirely different. The Suns' owners are prepared to pump millions of dollars into the project, unlike past owners. The state has apparently stepped forward offering support, meaning that the taxpayers of Baltimore would help pay for our stadium, instead of the other way around. And attendance at Suns games is significantly on the rise, bringing more people downtown than any other after-hours destination, by far.

All along, city taxpayers have said they do not object to a new stadium, they just object to paying the lion's share of the cost. Could it be they were telling the truth?

Indeed, the council's main electoral danger at the moment would be the appearance of being against any major change. The hospital fight was so exhausting and all-consuming that saying "no" has at the moment become the council's institutional identity.

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