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Dollars and sense for downtown

April 16, 2006|By BOB MAGINNIS

Have you ever heard of downtown dollars? I hadn't, until I suggested in my April 2 column that it would be a good idea to sell currency that could only be redeemed by downtown Hagerstown merchants.

That's a good idea, said Debbie Everhart, Hagerstown's Economic Development Director, adding that "we've been doing it for a year and a half."

Shame on me. I guess I haven't spent enough time watching Antietam Cable Channel 6 when there isn't a council meeting on. Everhart said that viewers are told that to buy them, they can come to City Hall and see Danielle Frye, the Mayor Robert Bruchey's secretary.

That was only one of the things I didn't know about what's happening downtown these days. The Holiday Motel on Prospect Street, last in the news in February when city and county officials reported that some problems found during an Oct. 27 surprise inspection still remained, has been sold.

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The property will be rehabilitated and turned into office space by CHS, a Frederick, Md., firm run by Skip Tivornik, who is also renovating Mount Prospect, an Italianate-style home at 37 S. Prospect St., into condominiums.

The folks who own "The Gourmet Goat" restaurant have purchased a building across from City Hall and will spend $500,000 renovating it, Everhart said.

And Everhart said that the old Antietam Street School, at 138 E. Antietam St., will soon become Darby Condos, with 27 units "in the low $100,000's."

According to the mayor, Everhart knows everything that's going on downtown and everyone who is involved. That seems like a good thing, but Bruchey said her schedule involves too many meetings to spend the time needed on marketing and promotion.

"For years she worked in the planning department and she had built up all these relationships with developers. And now when there's a meeting, they want her there, whether or not it has anything to with economic development," Bruchey said.

The mayor and council are under pressure to cut the budget, but Bruchey said he would really like to find a way to shift a position from another department to give Everhart more time.

If someone else could spend 20 hours a week attending some of those meetings and making personal contacts, Bruchey said, Everhart could concentrate more on promotion and recruiting.

Everhart agreed that a lot of activity is taking place now, but that for a successful outcome, "a lot of things have to happen concurrently."

That means making sure that downtown residential development is on track, so there are customers for the retailers the city hopes to attract and businesses to fill all of the office space now being renovated, she said.

She didn't say this, but if retail development occurs much faster than residential, there may not be enough customers downtown to support it.

If residential development occurs too far in advance of retail, downtown's new residents might get in the habit of going somewhere else, although there is now a core of downtown retailers who provide most of anyone's basic needs.

To draw new customers from areas outside downtown, Everhart said the city has obtained a mailing list of new residents in developments such as Cortland Manor, near Eastern Boulevard, and Hager's Crossing, behind the Centre at Hagerstown.

Those residents will be mailed $5 coupons good for all downtown businesses. The coupons will be different colors, Everhart said, so that city officials can figure out which neighborhoods produce the best return.

Everhart's department is also sending out 12,500 new city brochures, describing what's available in Hagerstown.

Asked what could be done to promote the downtown, Everhart said she hoped that people doing reports on the center city would remember that there are people who have put their whole lives, not to mention their life savings, into their businesses. They need to hear the good as well as the bad about the area where their stores are located, she said.

And they need to see some progress, in the form of additional foot traffic, before they can afford to hire additional staff to stay open in the evenings, she said.

Downtown retailers will get some help from the city on Thursday, April 27, when the Economic Development Department will serve breakfast on the council chambers from 8 a.m. to 9:50 a.m.

While merchants eat, they will hear from Casey Willson, retail industry manager of the Maryland Small Business Development Network. His topic will be: "Making Hagerstown and Your Store a Shopping Destination."

As someone who has worked and shopped downtown for 30 years, I'm rooting for downtown to succeed. At the risk of being wrong again, here are a few more suggestions:

Sell those downtown dollars at downtown banks and the Convention and Visitors' Bureau visitors' center. And, build them into the price of events such as the "State of the City" so that attendees get breakfast and a coupon.

When looking at how to market downtown, concentrate on the personalities of the merchants and on the service they provide.

You can buy a picture frame at the mall, but it won't look as good as if it's done by Maggie's Hang-ups. You can buy a suit off the rack, but it won't be tailored just for you as they do at Hoffman Clothiers and Ingram's. If the city can emphasize that these businesses are run by hard-working local people as opposed to big corporations, they might just get local residents to give them a chance.

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