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Downtowns require public-private alliances

October 16, 2005|By Douglas M. Duncan

One of the biggest challenges facing many communities across Maryland concerns the revitalization of our downtowns. Once the center of activity, downtowns are now often deserted at night, or worse, empty and vacant throughout the entire day. It's a challenge that affects a wide range of community issues ranging from economic development to crime to affordable housing. And it's a challenge that demands innovative solutions.

In the past, Maryland has been a national leader in implementing Smart Growth strategies designed to preserve open space and prevent sprawl development.

Preserving open space, while difficult, is actually the easier piece of the Smart Growth strategy. The other side of the issue is revitalizing our older communities and our downtowns to make them attractive for new businesses and residences alike.

Over the past few years, we have seen the state drastically reduce land preservation efforts while focusing even less on downtown and historic neighborhood revitalization. Once again, local governments have been forced to tackle another hard job alone, without a partnership from the state.

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That is why it is important for local governments to look for new partners. For too long, local government and the private sector have considered themselves at odds when it comes to economic development.

The business community sees too much government as impeding economic growth. And the local jurisdictions have too often thought of the private sector as being concerned only with profits, regardless of the public good. This mutual skepticism has hampered past revitalization efforts and must be overcome to achieve real success.

It is important to remember that the business community has a vested interest in seeing new, thriving downtowns. In my county, we have seen numerous public/private partnerships produce tremendously successful projects that have benefited (and profited) both the public and the private sectors. Perhaps none was more important to our county than the revitalization of our oldest downtown, Silver Spring. Once the center of retail and commercial activity, by the 1960s it began a troubling decline seen in many urban areas.

When I first campaigned for county executive, many people told me that turning around Silver Spring couldn't be done, that it was a lost cause. Some of my supporters told me it was too politically risky.

However, as one of 13 kids, I learned at an early age that nothing worth having in life comes easy - that you have to work hard for everything you get. Those values serve me well every day in office and served me especially well as I went about the task of breathing life back into Silver Spring. But I certainly didn't do it alone.

First, I listened to the community, heard what they wanted and what they didn't want. They came up with some great ideas that we then took to the private sector. To show our support and good faith as a local government, we employed the principles of smart growth and invested public dollars in renovating or building facilities that would spur private investment in Silver Spring. We invested in parking garages, streetscape, lighting improvements, a civic building and plazas. We even built a new fire station and police substation.

And rather than allowing government to be part of the problem, we made sure it was part of the solution. One of our first actions was to turn two vacant county parking lots over to a housing developer who invested $13 million and created 150 units of market rate housing.

We created a Green-Tape Zone in Silver Spring, expediting building and construction permits. We provided assistance to small businesses; created an arts and entertainment district for tax incentives; created a "clean and safe" program and won approval as an enterprise zone.

Today, there is $2 billion being invested in Silver Spring. The redevelopment project is anchored by the "town center" that includes the restored Silver Theater (run by American Film Institute); a half-million square feet of retail, restaurants and movie theaters; an office building; hotel; housing; two parking garages; a civic building and plazas. The results have been stunning. Crime has dropped 29 percent over the past four years, and more than 2,150 new housing units have opened or are planned.

Silver Spring has become a national model for urban revitalization; a model that can and should be used wherever there is a need.

Whether it's Hagerstown, Cambridge or Baltimore City, a county or a region cannot survive if there is a center of economic blight in the downtown. By reaching for new and creative solutions, government and the private sector can work together as true partners for the benefit of the entire community. All it takes is faith, trust and leadership.

Douglas M. Duncan is the county executive of Montgomery County, Md., and a candidate for governor.

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