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Perception can be a big obstacle to revitalization

February 18, 2007|by TAMELA BAKER

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

HAGERSTOWN - For decades, two particular perceptions seemed to thwart every organized effort to revitalize downtown Hagerstown.

One was that downtown Hagerstown was unsafe.

The other was that parking was scarce.

"I hear it every day," developer Mike Deming said in a recent interview.

But Deming, who has a huge stake in downtown Hagerstown's success, said he believes those perceptions are exaggerated.

"I don't care where it is - if you're walking down an alley at 2 a.m., it's probably not safe," he said.

Hagerstown, Deming said, "is a safe town. If you went anywhere else, it's probably worse - and in the same size town."

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Despite the shooting death of a young woman last summer on East Franklin Street, police statistics previously reported in The Herald-Mail show an overall decrease in violent crime in downtown Hagerstown.

Those who are making new investments in downtown Hagerstown agree that crime is not the issue some believe it is.

"I've lived in a lot of other places, and it's not so bad here," said Valerie Minteer, who operates two downtown businesses. "Every town has petty crime."

"We've never had an incident," added Deming, who owns about a dozen downtown buildings.

As for parking, Minteer insisted it wasn't an issue. Deming was a little more direct.

"That's crazy," he said. "Can you pull up in front of a building? Maybe not. But in the parking decks or the central lot, absolutely."

Still, Minteer said, perception is the biggest hurdle for downtown business to overcome.

"That's 80 percent of the battle," she said.

"I don't know that this area gives itself enough credit," Deming said. "I don't quite understand that. This place has a ton of stuff that's special."

New view

Deming and Minteer are part of a group of developers and investors fostering what Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce President Brien Poffenberger calls "a new view of Hagerstown."

Since 1990, both public and private funds totaling nearly $57 million have gone into downtown Hagerstown, according to statistics obtained from the city's planning department. Most of that redevelopment occurred after the announcement of one major public project.

"I truly believe that when word went out about the university, it spurred interest downtown," said Deborah Everhart, the city's economic development director. "Without a doubt, the university system did spark it."

Since the University System of Maryland's Hagerstown campus opened in 2005, downtown Hagerstown has welcomed several new restaurants as well as new shops.

And the city partnered with local developer Don Bowman to build a second parking deck, with nearly 200 spaces. The deck is behind South Potomac Street parcels Bowman is redeveloping into restaurant and office space.

In front of the parcels, the city is widening the sidewalk, which Bowman said will allow patrons at his restaurant as well as Duffy's and the Schmankerl Stube to enjoy sidewalk dining.

All of that fits into Everhart's concept of what a downtown district should be.

"It's a place to meet friends and have a good experience," she said. "It's more of a meeting and gathering place with more unique shopping."

Perceptions and challenges

The question, those involved say, is whether local residents can overcome their previous perceptions and see downtown Hagerstown as that social mecca.

Deming notes that Cumberland, Md., to the west, and Frederick, Md., to the east, already have met that challenge. "We have our own little identity" in Hagerstown, he said, but acknowledged that "some couldn't care less."

Carlen Loy, who opened Piedmont Gifts in downtown Hagerstown last year, is optimistic.

"I'm a 20-year veteran of Frederick," she said. "I got fed up with the way things were growing there, and came back here two years ago."

As for downtown Hagerstown, "I think the perception is really changing," Loy said. "Right now, we're more concerned about all the construction."

Amid the optimism, challenges remain. While a number of buyers have taken interest in downtown buildings, "some of them are buying them and sitting on them," Everhart said. "That doesn't help us."

In response, the Hagerstown City Council adopted two ordinances, effective last month, that require owners of vacant buildings - both commercial and residential - to purchase licenses for them each year, and to submit to annual inspections. Violators are subject to fines of $500 per day for residential structures, and $1,000 per day for commercial buildings.

Minteer said she believes the key to downtown Hagerstown's continued redevelopment is pulling together the right mix of businesses.

"The downtown anchor is the diversity of the independent shops," she said. "It doesn't have to be a large department store ... It has to start in one core area and build from there.

"It's not for everybody - there are people who love it and there are people who don't. But people are asking us, 'How can we get involved?' It's that kind of group that can make strides."

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