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Developers try to lure homeowners downtown

February 11, 2007|by TAMELA BAKER

Editor's note: This is the third of a series of stories on the redevelopment of downtown Hagerstown.




HAGERSTOWN - Not so long ago, few would have imagined there would be much interest in buying a place to hang your hat in the city's inner core.

In the decades since Hagerstown had been established as the "hub" of Western Maryland, homeowners migrated to newer homes outside the city's center, and a number of elegant buildings were converted to rental units, their once grand spaces cut up into little parcels.

Meanwhile, plan after plan to bring business back downtown faltered and fizzled.

"It's been a roller coaster, really," said Ed Lough, who has chaired the Urban Renewal and Historic Preservation committee of the Greater Hagerstown Committee for several years.

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About four years ago, Washington, D.C., consultant Thomas "Rocky" Wade convinced Lough's committee that such efforts were backwards. What Hagers- town needed, he said, was some upscale housing downtown.

Then, he said, business would follow.

So the group partnered with the city and went to work, laying plans to give potential homeowners incentives to move downtown, and giving developers incentives to revive those venerable buildings - or build new ones - in an effort to entice people to live in town. They even targeted an area - Baltimore Street - to work on.

As those efforts continue, some other folks discovered, or in one case rediscovered, Hagerstown.

And they're banking on people buying into the heart of Hagerstown.

From drawing board to reality

The recently completed Darby Condominiums were chiseled out of the former Antietam Street School last year. Work was finished in September, and units have been selling briskly - seven sales were recorded in January, according to real estate data provided by the city.

"The Darby is on projection - we think we will sell out by summer," said Tom Plant, president of TBS Investments in Gaithersburg, Md., which developed the project. As of last week, 10 condos were left, he said.

Demcore Development, the development company that is making a heavy investment in downtown Hagerstown, plans condominium projects on South Potomac and East Washington streets.

Demcore President Mike Deming said he wants to create a successful mixed-use area that will provide both residences and "things people need" when they move into them.

"I call it a concept, not a vision," Deming said. "Each little step should build on the last one."

One by one on Prospect Street, grand old homes that had been divided into apartments are being meticulously renovated as condominiums.

One of the developers working on Prospect Street buildings said he sees his projects as both filling a housing need and preserving the homes in this historic district.

Preserving such large, vintage homes is difficult for a single owner, said Edward "Skip" Tovornik Jr., because "it's so massive and so expensive. You have to extensively plan it out."

"To find a buyer to restore them is very difficult," added Denis Rocco, vice president of development for Tovornik's CHS Development Property Management.

Converting them from a jumble of small apartments to larger condos allows multiple owners to share the costs of preserving them, Tovornik said.

After growing up in Washington County, Tovornik followed careers in construction and the Navy down the river to Washington. There, he was exposed to that method of restoration of large historic properties.

His attachment to Hagerstown and his conviction that the time was right prompted him to invest some time and resources here, he said.

Tovornik is planning to complete work at Mount Prospect, which will offer 13 condos at 37 S. Prospect St. in April. He also is partnering with a property owner to restore the interior of a large brick home across the street to create two large condominiums.

"I'm selecting buildings where something's got to be done," he said. "If you want to preserve it, you have to invest. If you invest, it's gonna be expensive."

Shared vision

Tovornik, Plant and Deming stay in touch with each other, sharing plans and ideas.

"We actually have a very friendly relationship," Plant said. "It makes no sense to go out on our own and compete with each other. There's plenty of room for all of us."

"It takes several of us doing it at once," Tovornik said. "One person can't do it all."

As if to prove "Rocky" Wade's point, all of them either are involved in, or contemplating, commercial development as well.

Tovornik said he expects to take possession soon of the Holiday Motel at the corner of Prospect and West Washington streets, and turn it into office condominiums that businesses can buy. He plans to open his own Hagerstown office in one of them.

He's calling it "Renaissance Center," and already has put drawings for it on his Web site at www.hagerstowncondos.com.

Plant said his company is considering a commercial project as well.

"We certainly see an opportunity for commercial development," he said.

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