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State plan gives Civil War tourism a second chance

October 20, 2005

For years, whenever anyone has suggested that Hagerstown and Washington County capitalize on local Civil War history to draw tourists, the reaction has almost always been, "What a great idea!"

But as Del. Chris Shank acknowledged earlier this year, there hasn't been a lot of follow-up.

Now the area is getting another chance to draw much-needed foot traffic to downtown Hagerstown. Shame on local officials if they don't make the most of this opportunity

The new plan would develop a "Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area" in three counties and would target Hagerstown, Middletown and Taneytown for special state grants, loans and tax credits.

Proponents of the plan hope the project will allow the region to draw 66,500 new visitors who will spend an estimated $9.1 million per year.

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Hagerstown officials, including Planning Director Kathleen Maher, hope that the state-provided incentives will encourage private operators to create attractions such as a museum to illuminate the battles at Antietam and South Mountain.

If this sounds somewhat familiar, it's because in the late 1990s, a group led by historian Dennis Frye proposed such a museum be built in the old Baldwin House property.

Plans were proceeding when the city government decided to offer the site for the University System of Maryland campus. It was a blow from which the museum project never really recovered.

To revive the idea, both the Hagerstown and Washington County governments must approve it.

The idea also needs approval from 25 percent of the jurisdictions in the proposed heritage area and the governments of Frederick and Carroll counties.

Even if the proposal is approved, that won't end the work. Local governments will have to sort through competing proposals and decided how much support, in staff and money, they are willing to offer.

Thee best argument in favor of this proposal is that 2009 will mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, providing another opportunity for this area to attract tourists.

What downtown needs to prosper is foot traffic. Tourists could provide that without obligating local governments to treat their sewage or educate their children. Local governments need to quickly give this proposal their unanimous support.

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