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It will require more than police to make downtown a safe place

November 28, 2006

The news that the Hagers-town Police Department is making a renewed effort to curb crime in downtown Hagerstown is welcome, especially at a time when investors are risking millions to renovate old buildings for new uses.

According to a package of stories written by The Herald-Mail's Karen Hanna and printed on Sunday, HPD's downtown squad began this summer with two priorities:

Shut down the prostitution trade on the city's west side.

Enforce a policy of "zero tolerance" for any criminal activity - major or minor - on East Franklin Street.

Both of these illustrate the need to build a central booking facility sooner rather than later.

Even if law-enforcement officials want new construction to take place near the Washington County Detention Center, we would like to see the facility open and operating from temporary quarters as soon as possible.

Our second recommendation for the well-being of downtown and its residents is to press ahead with an initiative begun three years ago.

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That's when consultant Thomas "Rocky" Wade told the Hagerstown City Council that it was time to stop studying the problem and begin acting on it.

His recommendation: Build market-rate, owner-occupied housing downtown, More people living downtown with more disposable income would support businesses there. Owners would also protest when other elements in the neighborhood became a problem.

That same conclusion was reached by the Urban Renewal and Historic Preservation Forum of the Greater Hagers-town Committee.

That group talked to consultants and public officials from other areas, who said, in the words of then-chairman Ed Lough, "The housing piece has to come first."

Some of that activity has begun, as developers have turned historic properties on South Prospect Street and Antietam Street into condominiums.

But Greater Hagerstown found that developers didn't want to work on one house at a time, but on half a block or a block simultaneously.

That was the rationale behind the decision by Hagerstown Neighborhood Development Partnership Inc. (HNDP) now occupied by the Massey Body Shop on Baltimore Street into a townhouse development.

In August 2004, the group's president Richard Phoebus, said that work on 30 to 25 townhouses might begin by year's end.

But this week, Sharon Disque, HNDP's executive director, said that market conditions - properties are selling much more slowly than they did just a year ago - have delayed the project.

What the city council can do to push it along is unclear. Developers will not invest money unless they're sure that they can get a return in a timely manner.

But it is the council's interest to do whatever is possible. That's because, as we have said previously, renters who find themselves in a troubled neighborhood count the days until their lease is up, then depart.

Homeowners who have invested their cash in a neighborhood tend to stay and demand that the city take action.

We need such folks, whose fight to protect their investment will benefit the entire city, too.

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