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Progress here that's worth celebrating

March 18, 2007|by BOB MAGINNIS

Some years ago, a consultant working on the marketing of downtown Hagers-town asked me what I felt the biggest obstacle to progress there was.

In a nutshell, I said that it was tendency to remember the downtown of the past and avoid it in the present because it would never agaian be the glorious, bustling center of commerce that it once was.

In other words, the memory of what downtown once was was preventing people from seeing what it might become in the future.

He agreed with the idea and even coined a term for it - "the backward lament."

After listening to several former office-holders this week, it occurred to me that I might have my own version of that attitude. I have watched local goings-on for more than 30 years and sometimes tend to remember the past as better than it was.

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So in an effort to rethink that, I decided to consider what has improved locally in the last 30 years. My list includes:

· Hagerstown and Washington County are now run by professional administrators. When I began work at The Herald-Mail, both had what were truly part-time governments, with city and county clerks keeping an eye on the store between meetings.

The check-and-balance system that has been created, with elected officials becoming policy-makers as opposed to day-to-day managers works well. That's because while there's no requirement that candidates have any experience with large budgets or overseeing a large work force, it would be difficult to get hired as a professional manager without such skills.

·The quality of elected officials has improved. Yes, there are still some who say embarrassing things, but there are also fewer who speak without doing their research first - and some are even willing to consider ideas that didn't originate on this side of South Mountain.

If some of the modern office-holders have a flaw, it is their tendency to use their education and expertise to reach a conclusion on an issue, then close their minds to any further discussion.

Some of yesterday's office-holders, who were not as polished, were better politicians, in that they realized that no one gets everything they want and that progress is a goal worth compromising for.

· Citizens are getting more involved, through organizations such as Neighborhoods First and Citizens on Patrol. Many read everything posted on government Web sites and can quote local ordinances like a revival preacher citing scripture.

At what point this involvement will translate into better voter turnout is uncertain, but one answer might be in enlivening candidate forums with interactive technology.

If you ever watched the TV show, "Who Wants To Be a A Millionaire?" you know that the audience had devices that they could use to tell contestants what they believed were the right answers.

Schools also use such devices to get instant feedback on whether students are comprehending the material.

It would be interesting if a forum audience could instantly grade a candidate's answers by making one of the following choices: 1. Answered the question very well, 2. Sort of answered the question and 3. Didn't answer the question at all.

· Developers are beginning to turn old buildings into new living space. For example, Hagerstown's old Antietam Street School has now become a series of condominiums.

I advocated this back in the 1980s, when I envisioned that young couples or singles who couldn't afford a $100, 000 home - expensive at the time -could begin to build equity by purchasing a $60,000 condo.

The problem today is that at today's prices, just the cost of acquiring the buildings have forced the developers to price condos in the $100,000 range.

Nevertheless, it's still a good idea, because while renters in a problem neighborhood tend to leave when their leases are up, owners will stay and fight for their investments.

·The racial climate in Washington County has improved, at least from where I sit. We have an African-American on the Hagerstown City Council and it's been years since someone tried to tell me a joke with racial overtones.

That said, the Willie Mays incident was a huge missed opportunity to improve Hagerstown's image and to promote tourism, too. But I suspect even those who objected to renaming Memorial Boulevard in his honor regret how that turned out.

· The school system has embraced the attitude that it is no longer OK to conclude that some children, because of their low-income status or family history, will not succeed.

Is the system perfect? Does it always communicate as well as it might with its stakeholders? No, but slowly but surely the community is getting past the idea that because grandpap didn't finish high school and did just fine that today's generation doesn't need a diploma either.

· The arts - painting, drama and dance - are valued more than ever and will soon have their own school downtown. I look forward to what might happen next, with much confidence that the next surprise will be a pleasant one.

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