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War zone?

City officials, business owners discuss crime in downtown

City officials, business owners discuss crime in downtown

March 18, 2006|By DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

HAGERSTOWN

While optimistic about the city's future, Hagerstown officials and business owners acknowledged Thursday that some issues stand in the way of a citywide revitalization effort.

"I'm beginning to see the war zone," Hagerstown City Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said. "As we watch the downtown, the renaissance we're (also) watching the 100 block of West Franklin (Street) turning into what looks like (Washington) D.C. after the riots."

Metzner and other city officials met with members of The Greater Hagerstown Committee's Urban Renewal & Historic Preservation subcommittee at Robinwood Medical Center Thursday afternoon to discuss their shared concerns and visions for the city's downtown area.

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"Let's get back on the same road," Urban Renewal committee Chairman Ed Lough said. "It doesn't matter what avenues we came in from, let's get back on the same road."

City officials and members of the subcommittee said there are a number of positive things happening in the city, and they agreed on initiatives including an expansion of the Washington County Public Library, a stronger Arts and Entertainment District, and a wider stock of affordable housing in the city.

They also said they were worried that problems in the city are undercutting Hagerstown's revitalization efforts.

"We need to do something about the creeping, insidious things going on down there on Franklin Street," Metzner said, calling on City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman and the police department to address the problem.

Upstanding business owners "have a right not to have the issues they have, which is a constant flow of drugs and prostitutes right there," he said.

The area Metzner referred to extends outward from the intersection of Franklin and Prospect streets. Nadia's Convenience Store is at one corner of the intersection, the Hub City Cycle Center at another, the former 7th Degree Barber Shop on a third, and a suite of businesses including the REACH Caregivers homeless shelter on the fourth. The Holiday Motel and a Division of Parole and Probation office are nearby as well.

Councilwoman Kelly S. Cromer said at the meeting that while she does not feel threatened walking in the city, she believes there is a perception the downtown area is unsafe, and she believes media accounts of crime in the city foster that image.

"I walk downtown at night anytime by myself, maybe that's just stupidity, I don't know, but I don't feel unsafe," she said.

Zimmerman, who attended the Greater Hagerstown meeting but did not speak about the issue then, said in a telephone interview Friday the city is doing what it can to address the problem. He said the police department has been aware of it since the 7th Degree Barber Shop caught on fire under suspicious circumstances and was closed down in January 2005.

The Hagerstown Fire Marshal's Office said the fire was deliberately set, but no arrests have been made.

"We need to look for ways to promote revitalization in that neighborhood," Zimmerman said. "If it's visible to the public, it's also visible to the police department, and so, oftentimes people aren't aware of what the police department's doing."

Police Chief Arthur Smith said Friday there are both drug and prostitution issues in the area, and the department is doing what it can, but he said there are factors beyond the department's control. He said the department is working with the REACH shelter on issues surrounding the homeless population, and the downtown division's bike patrol squad closely monitors the area.

"That's going to be the toughest part of the downtown (to revitalize), as far as we're concerned," Smith said. "There's a number of reasons for it, some of which can be helped by the city, some of which are going to be a little bit tougher. We're very vigilant there, but there's a lot of challenges there to the economic revitalization."

Mike Mittel, owner of Hub City Cycle Center, said Friday he believes the issues Metzner raised often are painfully obvious. He said some of his customers have joked with him about drugs and prostitution issues, which he views not just as lighthearted comments but as a recognition of the problem.

"You don't have to be a genius to figure out what's happening," he said. "I definitely think it's one of the things that is the talk of downtown and our business."

He said acknowledging there is a problem, and addressing it, are two distinctly different things.

"How does it get done, how do you stop it?" he said.

Lough and others said at Thursday's meeting they believe the city and its business community can counteract a negative image by creating a more vibrant business district, filling some of the downtown's vacant buildings with businesses or affordable housing units, and supporting downtown residency initiatives.

"If we could just get some things downtown that would have people on the streets, besides (Maryland Symphony Orchestra) nights, the perception would change," he said.

Smith said other cities have higher violent crime rates, but he believes Hagerstown has more problems with drugs and prostitution than some other cities in the state. He said he has not seen recent crime statistics, but he has requested specific data on violent crime in the area of Franklin and Prospect streets.

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