Why Long Meadow area will get second shopping center

September 14, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

After a Bethesda, Md., based development company announced plans to build a new retail center on 30 acres across from Hagerstown's Long Meadow Shopping Center, people began asking me The Question.

If I've heard it once, I've heard it 20 times. It goes like this: "Why would they build a new shopping center there when the one across the street is nearly empty?"

James Castillo, retail development director for Faison Enterprises Inc., has a simple answer - the owner wouldn't sell the property at a price that made economic sense.

"We would have loved to have had that opportunity," he said, but added that negotiations with RD Management LLC of New York, N.Y., were not successful.


"There has to be an economic ability to do it. There has to be a willing seller," Castillo said.

R.D. Birdoff, a principle of RD Management, could not be reached for comment.

With Long Meadow out, Castillo said Faison was offered a portion of the Shank Farm as an alternative.

Debbie Everhart, Hagerstown's economic development director, said there have been "numerous attempts to acquire that (Long Meadow) property, but they're not interested in selling."

Everhart said that RD Management is looking at Long Meadow as a long-term project. The firm's plans include tearing down the old Sears building and seeking a new anchor tenant for the property.

That will apparently not be Lowe's, which Castillo said will anchor the Faison center. There should also be a grocery store and a variety of retail shops, he said.

The stone house on the property will be renovated and will sit close to one of the entrances there.

Under the city's new rules for "big box" developments, Castillo said Faison will have to meet certain standards for architecture, green space and setbacks.

That doesn't bother Faison, he said, because "we do high-end development anyway."

I asked Castillo about what seems to be a pattern for big retailers such as Wal-Mart and Lowe's - having one store built, then moving to a second, larger location that leaves the first one vacant.

"In the last decade and a half, the big-box users have gone through a number of evolutions as they worked out what would allow them to operate their businesses most efficiently," he said.

There is some protection against the build-and-abandon pattern in the city's big-box ordinance, he said.

Faison's new center will be 250,000 square feet, almost identical to Long Meadow's 243,000 square feet and will be called, at this point, Northeast Plaza.

It will be annexed into the city, providing new tax revenue, but also creating new challenges for an intersection - Northern Avenue and Md. 60 (Leitersburg Pike) that is already one of the area's busiest.

Malcolm "Mac" Davis, of Hagers-town-based engineering firm of Davis, Renn & Associates, said that the firm is already working with city officials on that issue.

"Obviously a traffic study is going to be completed and we'll have to abide by that," he said.

Will that satisfy neighbors in nearby Cortland Manor, some of whom have already expressed concern about increased noise and traffic? It's hard to say.

What should happen sooner rather than later is a cooperative effort between city and county to rezone land along the city's municipal boundary, so that in the future, different land uses complement each other instead of competing.

Doug Duncan, county executive of Montgomery County, Md., and an all-but-declared candidate for governor, spent part of his time at The Herald-Mail last week talking about downtown redevelopment projects in which he's been involved in Rockville and Silver Spring.

If his prescriptions sound familiar, it's because they've been bandied about for years in reference to downtown Hagerstown.

Creating new housing downtown is one key, he said. And a buy-in from both the businesses and property owners in downtown is essential, he said, because both need to contribute money to promotional efforts there.

"You want to use government to create a streetscape. We tried to put libraries in that town center, because you want to create that foot traffic," he said.

And, he said, "people want to feel safe and they want to be able to get in and out easily," he said.

Hagerstown has created an attractive streetscape whose most recent addition is the beautiful park next to the University System of Maryland building. But downtown needs something more to generate foot traffic.

Perhaps, as has been suggested for years, it would be a Civil War museum or a first-stop conference center that tourists could use to find out which battle happened where.

Another possibility: Offering a large business a long-term lease at attractive terms if they promise to bring more than 200 jobs downtown. Another brochure, another marketing plan won't work unless there is something more to draw people who otherwise wouldn't come downtown.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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