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Downtown's second chance: Civil War heritage program

June 27, 2006

Author F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that, "There are no second acts in American lives." Maybe so, but cities sometimes get a second chance to do something correctly after stumbling the first time.

That's the opportunity facing the City of Hagerstown now as it becomes part of a multi-county effort called "Heart of the Civil War." Shame on city officials if they don't take advantage of this marvelous opportunity.

The project is a heritage area, which, if approved by the state, will be the 11th in Maryland. Three counties - Carroll, Frederick and Washington - will join two dozen cities in a cooperative effort to promote the region's Civil War heritage.

Certified heritage areas are eligible for a variety of grants for marketing, preservation and new construction.

This is not a hastily-put- together project. The project began several years ago and in addition to public hearings and a 211-page planning document, the project also has its own Web site, which can be accessed at: www. heartofthecivilwar.org.

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Visitors to the site will find a copy of the planning document, which contains a section titled "Visions and Goals."

In addition to increasing cooperation between many organizations, including government, for-profit and nonprofit groups, the group also wants to "increase the regional economic impact of travelers to the heritage area."

That statement represents a golden opportunity for downtown Hagerstown, which needs the foot traffic that new visitors would provide. And the main draw ought to be some sort of a Civil War museum.

Historian Dennis Frye led a group that proposed such a museum in the late 1990s, but that project was undercut when its planned site - the old Baldwin House - was offered to the University System of Maryland for a downtown campus.

No one will argue that the campus wasn't a worthwhile project. It was a much-needed educational facility that will do much to ensure Washington County's future prosperity.

But it should not have to be an either-or proposition. There is still space available downtown for a museum.

We do not envision it beginning as a $30 million facility, but more as Discovery Station has begun - modestly, with plans to expand as it identifies funding sources and builds a base of supporters.

As Convention and Visitors Bureau President Tom Riford often says, tourism is a "green" industry. Those who visit leave their dollars here, but don't ask local folks to educate their children or provide municipal services such as water and sewer.

Hagerstown is getting a second chance to benefit financially and otherwise from Civil War tourism. We recommend that city officials make the most of it.

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