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Two more good ideas get bogged down in the Quagmire Council

August 20, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

Once again, two more people trying to improve the downtown left Hagerstown City Hall shaking their heads this week after running square into the Quagmire Council. If this council believes its mandate from the voters is to keep as many people as possible out of the city, they are doing quite the job of it.

Mayor Bob Bruchey seems to understand what needs to be done, as do certain individual council members on certain occasions, sort of like hospital patients drifting in and out of a coma.

The problem is that one or two council members can gum up the works with unfathomable "concerns" and that is enough to bog down the whole process, as happened this week.

First, Hagerstown developer Mike Deming appeared before the city council, asking that a block of the downtown be closed off for a music festival. But he was squarely met with two concerns, one that liquor would be sold at the fest, the other that it might be self-serving.

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I can understand the protest over hooch - heaven forfend that people might enjoy themselves downtown - but the second protest leaves even the most savvy council watcher a little stunned.

A concern was raised that the festival might be good for business - specifically Deming's business.

Goodness, you mean a downtown business might actually be profitable? No doubt, that's a pretty dangerous precedent you're setting.

But shouldn't we be hoping and praying that this October festival would be good for Deming's business, as well as all downtown businesses?

Permit me to tell the Hagerstown City Council about a little thing I like to call capitalism.

Here's a guy who has sunk hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars into downtown property. These are his own, private funds used for private business, not public tax dollars being used to build a courthouse or government office space. If he succeeds, Hagerstown succeeds.

Deming has faith in downtown Hagerstown. He sees potential and opportunity and wants to take part in the success. The city is starting to look pretty good and have some desirable dining and entertainment outlets in place. But a lot of people don't know about these assets, and won't unless there is some special event to bring them in for a look. The city ought to be enthusiastically endorsing someone who wants to throw the party and help do the heavy lifting.

The fact that the city is instead throwing up roadblocks is mind-boggling and not good news for other developers who might be watching and conclude that doing business in Hagers-town is simply not worth the hassle.

If these were just minority, misguided concerns, why in the world couldn't the majority just say, "Fine, objection noted," and approve the street-closure request? And beyond that, would a little "thank you and good luck" to Deming have been too much to ask? Apparently so.

And the council was just getting warmed up.

Next they failed to endorse a plan to license, or slap a fee on vacant buildings. Here they at least seemed to start out with the right thought, but then got hung up on the most ridiculous of details.

The city is correctly concerned about appearance and safety of vacant buildings. But there is an even better reason for this initiative. Typically, the more valuable an asset, the more it is taxed. Hence, an empty building would be taxed less than a building that had been renovated into a modern facility (at great expense to the renovator).

But in a downtown trying to cure the cancer of vacant buildings and lethargic commerce, this principle needs to be stood on its head. Here, tax policy should be used to encourage renovation and discourage those who would buy a building on speculation and be content to let it sit vacant for 20 years on the theory it will appreciate.

But the council, which appeared just recently to be on board with this vacant-building tax, got caught up on whether the charge would be in the form of a fine or a fee and finally could agree to do nothing more than "talk further."

So the council has two good ideas on its plate and the majority appears to favor them both, but it can't pull the trigger. Is it any wonder that people of intellect are discouraged from even presenting the council with good ideas?

I know of at least one initiative that's on hold simply because its proponents believe that the headache that come with approaching the Quagmire Council is more trouble than it's worth.

It's no coincidence that the most successful enterprise, in terms of bringing in people into town - the Hagerstown Suns - is routinely browbeaten and insulted by the council. Anything that does well, or has the potential to do well, is viewed with suspicion.

Perhaps Freud could tell us what's at work here. An institutional inferiority complex, perhaps, the discomfort with a downtown "scene" full of young, hip people with a degree of intellect, who might find a council of fuddy-duddies to be irrelevant.

Ironically, the city's greatest phobias, such as gangs and Section 8, are greatly encouraged and will thrive under the policies of the Quagmire Council. Weeds flourish in untended and unfertilized gardens. If the council continues to grumble over every attempt at progress, then yes, gangs and poverty will take over and the council will have no one but itself to blame, because it has failed to encourage any positive alternative.

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