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Ideas to help rejuvenate downtown

April 02, 2006|By BOB MAGINNIS

The advantage of working in downtown Hagerstown forever, or for 30 years anyway, is that I've seen a lot of things that were expected to work, but didn't.

That includes decades of good cooks who decided to open restaurants, crafters who set up shops to sell a variety of whirligigs, doorstops and dreamcatchers and assorted horse-traders who were sure that they could buy used furniture and appliances and sell them for a profit.

The dreams usually ended in winter, sometimes with snow that left the sidewalks coated with ice for weeks and customers wary of falling. At other times it was a manmade catastrophe, such as the landlord shutting off the heat in a bid to get more money. Tears were shed, trucks were loaded and the dreams were hauled away, along with an assortment of cardboard boxes.

Institutional plans went awry, too. There was the Inner Block project, a proposal that would have created parking in the area behind buildings on Washington and Franklin streets. Part of that area has been turned into a nice downtown park now, but back then merchants didn't like the idea, so it was dropped.

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Nor did many care for the Downtown Assessment District, which was designed to help downtown retailers compete with the malls by assessing businesses a fee that would be used for joint promotions. DAD is gone, too.

Public Square has been renovated twice in my time here, and though it looks very nice now, it would be hard to credit it with improving business that much. In time, the University System of Maryland Campus center may draw more traffic, but I'm not seeing it now.

So what would work? Here are my thoughts:

When I remember downtown in the 1970s, what I recall is that there were a lot of people on the streets. Downtown needs foot traffic and it probably won't come, at least at first, from the residents of Washington County. There are too many people who remember downtown as it was and can't imagine it becoming anything better again.

Barring a decision by a business (or two or three ) to bring 200 or more employees downtown, what's needed is what the tourism people call a "destination attraction." The Civil War museum proposed by historian Dennis Frye would have been perfect, but when city officials offered the Baldwin House complex to the USM people, the museum project lost steam.

Now, when there are grants available for Civil War heritage promotion, would be a good time to revive this idea. It does not need to cost $60 million, but can start small and grow as it develops patrons and collectors get assurances that their donations will be well-cared-for and not sold at auction if things don't work out. With gasoline prices rising, a museum would give history buffs one more reason to put together a day visiting Hagerstown, Antietam National Battlefield and Harpers Ferry.

Use the Internet. For years I have said that there should be one place where I could go to find out what the special of the day was at various downtown restaurants.

The closest I've gotten to that is that one of my favorite places, Bentley's Bagels, now has me on an e-mail list that tells me what the soup and sandwich of the day are. And sometimes the proprietor throws in a bit of personal stuff, such as how he couldn't get his famous egg salad made because he had jury duty. It's a personal touch that I appreciate.

Force people to shop downtown, but in a nice way. How do you do that? By giving them money, in the form of something I would call "downtown dollars." If you wanted to give an employee a bonus or a friend a gift, you would buy them some downtown dollars, which they could only use at participating downtown merchants.

Purchasers of large amounts of such currency could be offered a deal. For every $100 you buy, you'd get $5 or $10 extra. Someone would have to pay for that bonus cash, but if you limited that part of the program to six months, to see if it would work out, it shouldn't cost that much.

Offer valet parking at night. I saw this last summer in the Little Italy section of Baltimore, where there are plenty of restaurants, but not much on-street parking. People pulled up, handed their keys to the valet, who then retrieved their car when they were done.

If that's too labor-intensive, try this variation: Have shuttle buses pick up patrons at the parking decks, drop them at their destinations and bring them back on a regular schedule. Those who complain that they don't like to go into the decks at night wouldn't even have to get out of their cars until the shuttle went by, at which time they could flash their lights to flag down the bus.

Create a City Club. Only residents of the city would be eligible to join this organization, which would devote itself to improvement of Hagerstown. During the last election, I heard grumbling that people outside the city limits were trying to control Hagerstown.

If that were true, perhaps it was because there was no organized group of boosters speaking up for what should and shouldn't be happening in the Hub City. Holding the club's meetings downtown would also encourage its members to eat and shop there, before or after they got down to business. Provided they avoid some of the pitfalls of the past - such as hiring consultants to go over old ground - City Club members could make a big difference, if only because they're the ones who would have to live with the results.

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