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We may not have to search too far to reach a destination

September 03, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

Once again, talk has turned to the City of Hagerstown needing a "destination," loosely defined as a stand-alone reason for people from Washington County and beyond to come downtown.

The last time the D word raised its head, the cause celebr was a Civil War museum proposed for the block across from Washington County Public Library.

Largely, I believe, because of the ambitious project's scope, it never achieved a critical mass of local support. The feeling among city leaders at the time was that it would never be able to attract enough visitors to avoid taxpayer-funded white elephant status.

As private money starts to well up in the city core and produce results, destination attractions are more important now than they were then. People lured to the downtown a decade ago might have been less than impressed with what they saw and left uninspired to plan a return trip.

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The city's record on destinations hasn't been great over the years, even as those destinations proved feasible elsewhere. A Civil War medical museum went to Frederick, a rail museum to Scranton, Pa. We allowed the railroad roundhouse to be bulldozed and are on the verge of running the minor league baseball team - which would love to stay, save for an anti-business City Council - out of town.

The backers of the failed Civil War museum were both right and wrong. They were right in the sense that if often takes a bold, dramatic statement to attract the attention of a distracted tourism market. But they miscalculated in thinking that everyone on a local level would subscribe to the questionable notion that drama guarantees success.

A bold move is a risky move, and this community is risk-averse - which truth be told, isn't always a bad thing.

With that in mind, people investigating the possibility of destinations might, instead of "a" destination, consider a series of destinations.

This destination diversification has two advantages. One, it will appeal to a broader range of people and interests than a single-issue, all the eggs in one basket approach. Second, it allows the city to advance on an incremental basis - see what works and what doesn't, without risking huge outlays of tax money on one project that may or may not be a success.

We already have a solid start. BluesFest, Discovery Station, the Hagerstown Suns, Maryland Theatre, Washington County Arts Council concerts and the City Park and Fine Arts gallery all are serious attractions from which to build.

And Hagerstown, yes Hagerstown, has a number of strengths that we may be taking for granted because we are used to seeing them on a routine basis. These strengths could be easily exploited, for lack of a gentler word, and knit together with our other attractions.

Best of all, since they already exist, construction wouldn't cost taxpayers a dime.

An obvious example is our city architecture. I don't know what is officially called, but I know it's good. And people miss it every day, because they walk with their eyes down on the sidewalk instead of up toward the second or third floors.

This architecture, as I understand it, is fairly unique and could be an attraction; it would dovetail nicely with Ruth Anne Callaham's idea of city walking tours.

Another major asset is our dogwoods.

For a couple of weeks each spring, drive from the Longmeadow Shopping Center south toward Halfway - just about any route will do - and prepare to be dazzled. During dogwood season, who hasn't mused that Hagerstown isn't such a bad spot to live, after all?

Washington has its cherry blossoms, and while other cities have dogwood festivals they tend to be in the south. So we may have regional first-mover status.

Dogwoods offer plenty of public-private partnership opportunities. Artists might be nudged into a dogwood art competition, which would tie into the art council and art museum. Discovery Station might feature tree diseases that have devastated native species - such as dogwood anthracnose - and inspire some students to search for cures.

The area's splendid network of nurseries and garden centers could certainly find ways to both pitch in and profit from a botanically oriented celebration. And goodness knows what promotions the guys over in the Suns front office could cook up.

This is just one idea, and it may not even be a good one. The point is, that we do have some quality assets available to us that are already in place, as Civil War museum proponents tried to tap into with our local history.

People searching for destination ideas are on the right path. And sometimes, with just a little nurturing and creative presentation, destinations can be made of qualities that have been here all along. These qualities will attract new people, and in fashion, celebration of these qualities is a way of honoring those who have lived here all their lives because they have seen beauty and found joy in things others were too busy to notice.

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