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Barbara Ingram school could be an economic engine downtown

March 18, 2007

I have nothing against children I wish them all the best. But as much as talented, artistic students will benefit from the Barbara Ingram arts school downtown, it's the prospects for the City of Hagerstown itself that have me more juiced at the moment.

The school is made possible by two unlikely things: The donation of a historic, Potomac Street building by known downtown proponent Vincent Groh (the school will be named after his late wife) and a creative, low-interest loan put together by MEDCO, a state economic development agency, with an assist from the City of Hagerstown.

The cost is $9 million, although the school board hopes to lower the final cost significantly through grants and a low-key business fundraiser that will sell naming rights to the building's four floors.

Viewed as a magnet school alone, this would appear expensive. Viewed when considering its value to the city, it may be one of the greater bargains Hagerstown and Washington County ever saw.

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City centers across the country continue to struggle, as has Hagerstown's. But nearly without exception, those that are thriving have one and/or two things in common: Arts and schools.

College towns are almost always vibrant and arts succeed in city centers because it is perhaps the one retail trade that doesn't lend itself well to strip malls and shopping centers.

Arts succeed by numbers. One arts shop doesn't make a destination and the people who are shopping at Wal- Mart and Home Depot aren't likely to be too interested in a lone gallery wedged in between.

Along with this, arts are a natural fit for old, historic buildings that will be appreciated by the affluent clientele that galleries naturally attract.

When the number of craft, art and antique outlets (along with the culinary arts) reach critical mass, the city becomes known as an arts destination. And after it becomes a trendy place to shop, it becomes a trendy place to live.

The pattern is repeated across the country, from as nearby as Berkeley Springs, W.Va., to as far away as Burlington, Vt. and Santa Cruz, Calif.

Arts, education and history are the surest formula to downtown success, in an era when traditional shoppers cannot be lured away from the suburbs.

Along with educating talented musicians, dancers and artists, Barbara Ingram will inevitably have several other long-term, positive effects.

First, it's going to bring a lot of smart, local kids - and their parents - into the city and familiarize them with what the city has to offer in terms of restaurants, shops and cafes. These are people, and a substantial number of them, who might otherwise never have given downtown Hagerstown the time of day.

One of Hagerstown's greatest problems is lack of exposure. Despite being the butt many jokes over its depressed years, modern downtown Hagerstown ain't that bad. Kids will see that, even when adult notions are too preconceived.

They will interact with the downtown, taking their nonart classes at the University System of Maryland center on Washington Street. It will become comfortable and enjoyable for them and, even after graduation, they will be more likely to come back.

Many of these kids will move on after graduation, but not all. There will be talented artists who want to open a studio or a gallery and they will do it here.

These students will be the seed crop for future downtown creative and retail art shops. As an aside to this, it would be greatly in the city council's best interest to move toward expanding its arts district to include more residential areas.

The arts district is designed to attract artists through tax breaks. But the city's district is tightly drawn around the city core and its more expensive properties.

A tax break doesn't do a budding artist any good if floor space is going for $16 a foot. This explains why Hagerstown trails the state in attracting artists to its arts district.

To a community steeped in heavy industry, arts may seem frivolous. What is a piece of pottery next to an A-10?

But industries and economies change. Thirty-five years ago, who would have thought that Washington County could make a living out of processing a credit card transaction?

Fortunately, there were some who were visionary enough to recognize that the industry was worth the investment.

For downtowns, arts has to be viewed as an industry, because it might be the one thing that can lift the city over that final hump, bring in crowds of people with money, increase home ownership and increase the tax base.

At least one School Board member admits that without the downtown angle, a magnet school for the arts in Washington County might not have made sense. As great as it would be for a select group of kids, it would be hard to argue that the money - which will also need to include operating and transportation costs - might not be better spent elsewhere in the system.

But from a seed planted by Vincent Groh, this is a clear example where the school system is contributing to the community in a very significant way that goes beyond the "mere" education of our children.

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