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The man driving downtown development

June 03, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

In 1965, the Rolling Stones complained that they couldn't "get no satisfaction." In 2007, Mike Deming says satisfaction isn't something he's even looking for.

Deming made the comment during a recent interview with me about what he and his company, Demcore Development, are doing in an attempt to revitalize downtown Hagerstown.

I'll explain what he meant later. But first, some background.

Demcore has purchased a number of buildings in the downtown core, including the Schindel-Rohrer building, the building that once housed the Cellar Door and the building that houses Barnwood Books on South Potomac Street across the street from the main branch of the Washington County Free Library.

In the past, different people have tried to do redevelopment one piece at a time - either restaurants, office space or retail.

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Deming, knowing that all those pieces of the puzzle must fit together, has decided to do everything at once. He's opened restaurants to draw people downtown, developed condominiums so that they can live there and office space for job development.

Deming came to Hagerstown five years ago, drawn by what he said was the "tremendous opportunity in the downtown core."

The size of the buildings and the architecture made him believe that good things could happen here, he said.

But he didn't start in downtown. His first project was a four-unit foreclosure on Madison Avenue in the city's West End. That became the pattern - renovate, re-rent and eventually resell so that he could concentrate on the downtown core.

Deming said Demcore will eventually have 150 to 200 condominiums within a two-block area of Public Square.

In 2003, the Hagerstown Mayor and Council heard from Thomas "Rocky" Wade, a consultant who told them that what downtown needed was some homeowners and/or renters with some disposable income.

Wade recommended creation of a community development corporation that would recruit developers to renovate existing properties into market-rate housing or build new units. A project was announced to put new units on the Massey Body Shop property on Baltimore Street, but three years later, little has happened.

Enter Deming, whose thick skin has served him well in dealing with a city government that has sometimes treated him not as a valued investor, but as someone who is disturbing the natural order of things.

Even those who vote in favor of his ideas - a street festival, for example - seem as if they're doing it because it's an unpleasant task they must do, as some parents might react if told that their child needed braces. "Overly enthusiastic" is not how I would describe the council's reaction to Deming's proposals.

Deming does not dwell on this, preferring to talk about his plans for the immediate future. In the next 30 days, he said he hopes to begin marketing condominiums in "The Residences," located next to the Maryland Theatre.

Asked if he foresaw owners of those condos commuting to big-city jobs, he said they might, if the jobs they held were in Frederick or Montgomery County, Md.

Asked if present parking requirements were a problem, Deming said that they were. Three spaces per renovated unit is now the standard, he said, adding that this is difficult when the buildings being renovated go "from lot line to lot line," with no space for parking.

Dropping the requirement to one space or even zero spaces per unit would help a great deal, he said.

Another requirement is retail stores to provide goods such as milk and eggs for downtown tenants. Open such businesses too early and they won't thrive, he said, but without them, would-be residents might be reluctant to move in.

Asked about the most difficult challenge he has faced, Deming said it's the perception that downtown is "a certain way."

Come downtown on a Saturday night and have dinner at a place such as Duffy's (in the Schindel-Rohrer building), Deming said, and residents will see that there's a good crowd and that it's safe on the streets.

Asked what has been the most satisfying thing about his Hagerstown experience, Deming said that "I don't say that a whole lot. I have a problem being satisfied with anything. There are certainly things that I'm proud of and we're just trying to improve the community." he said

Mike Deming seems to be a man whose satisfaction comes not from what was done yesterday, but from what might be accomplished tomorrow. I hope I'm here to see his vision of a revitalized downtown - "a different neighborhood than everyone's been used to" - become a reality.

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