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Many cities would not consider crowds to be a problem

June 17, 2007|by TIM ROWLAND

Folks looking to drive through downtown Hagerstown as fast as possible are probably grateful that traffic signals are coordinated to speed their progress.

Not all downtowns do it that way.

Some purposefully stagger lights to ensure motorists have to stop and wait for the light to change at several points in the city. The reason is that if a motorist is stopped, she is more likely to look around and perhaps take note of an interesting downtown shop or two that might have otherwise gone unnoticed as she breezed by.

Any rookie ad agent can tell you this: eyes matter.

It's a point some Hagerstown business owners who are put off by developer Mike Deming's annual street music festival might want to consider.

I take them at their word when they say the music festival may not be the greatest thing for their business on that particular day, and I respect that concern.

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But as downtown's appearance has less and less to be ashamed of - thanks in large part to developers like Deming - business owners may consider cutting the event some slack.

Hundreds of people who otherwise might never come downtown will be giving the city core an eye. They might like what they see; they might decide to come back. Even if only 5 percent of the festival's participants are inspired to invest in a return trip, that's a significant amount of much-needed foot traffic.

No doubt the festival will attract some drunken fools. You see them in even the best restaurants in the best cities. But the majority will be relatively sober-minded people with some disposable income looking to have some fun.

If they equate Hagerstown with fun, they will be back, wallets in tow.

The City of Hagerstown correctly debated the festival, correctly gave it a good deal of thought and, in my view, correctly allowed it to carry on this October.

(In typical two steps forward, one back protocol however, two council members also appeared before the liquor board asking it to deny developer Don Bowman's request for a carry-out license so he can sell fine wines. A package store would attract undesirables, they said. No doubt. I imagine that the tramps down at the rail yard are already arguing whether to go with the Cotes du Rhone Rouge '69 or a well-aged Latour Private Reserve.)

But that aside, give the council majority credit for lurching in the direction of progress, however painful it may be to watch.

Even private citizens (many of them older) who will understandably be disturbed by a day of loud folly, have a thread to hold on to, and it is this: The more the city succeeds, the more businesses and people will chose to locate here and that broadens the tax base, keeping taxes lower.

And concerns about the flow of emergency vehicles seem misplaced at best. For years, the inglorious HagerFest required the closing of city streets without similar objections. Same for the Tour de Trump bicycle race, the Mummer's Parade and other special events.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of cities across the nation close streets on occasion without incident. It's hard to believe all these other communities can figure it out and Hagerstown can't. (Then again, maybe it's not.)

But the two greatest protestations are the ones most deserving of celebration: 1. A downtown businessman may profit, and 2. There will be an unruly crowd.

Frankly, I don't know how you combat the disturbing prospect of a profitable downtown business. First one profits, then a few more profit and then everyone's profiting. If private enterprise gets wind of the fact that it's possible to make money in Hagerstown, there could be a horrible epidemic.

If Deming makes any money off the affair, I hope he has the good grace to keep the fact to himself.

But more amazing, save for Blues Fest, when was the last time you heard the words "crowd" and "Hagerstown" in the same sentence?" And viewed as a problem, no less.

For decades now, the cry of despair raised by resident and business alike is that no one goes downtown. The aforementioned HagerFest was notable for having more tumbleweeds than actual human beings. And as for the "open containers," if one wishes to make the relatively plausible argument that you have to get people drunk for them to go to downtown Hagerstown, I'd almost be willing to buy them the Scotch.

For his part, Deming has to know that a lot of eyes will be on the festival, and has to do his best to keep it civilized. Bartenders need to be schooled on denying patrons who are over the limit. Bad apples need to know that they risk arrest.

Sad to say, some will be hoping for mass disturbances and failure. They would rather be able to say "I told you so" than to witness an event that is smoothly run and a success for the city. It's the type of attitude that leads them to fight a respected businessman's ability to sell a good bottle of wine.

It's part of the process and there will be growing pains. Hard as it is to believe, some prefer a depressed, struggling city to a lively one. There is a very real fear of change. Fortunately, there are people such as Deming and Bowman to help us along the way.

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