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OK of developers' plans a giant step for downtown

June 22, 2007

Two Hagerstown developers got good news this week, as local officials approved plans to hold a downtown party Oct. 20 and to operate an upscale wine shop on South Potomac Street.

The approvals are welcome, although we agree with City Council skeptics that these approvals shouldn't mean "anything goes."

But in both cases, the developers have a great deal to lose if the problems forecast by some actually develop and we expect that they'll take great care to see that all goes well.

On Monday, developer Don Bowman received approval for the transfer of the liquor license held by Chris Jefferies, the owner of the Red Horse Steak House, who is retiring and closing his business.

Bowman, who is building a restaurant and office space, sought the license to sell fine wines for carryout.

The idea that Bowman, who has served on many government advisory boards and worked on behalf of many nonprofits, would run anything but a first-class establishment is unthinkable.

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On Tuesday, the City Council approved developer Mike Deming's plans for the second annual Downtown Live party on Oct. 20.

Part of the controversy surrounding this event was the idea of closing Public Square during the event. Emergency vehicles, it was said, would have a difficult time responding.

But downtown events have been held, with the streets closed, for a number of years, dating back to the HagerFest celebrations. As long as emergency service providers are part of the planning for the event, it should be manageable - and safe.

Now that the council has taken this positive step, we would like to ask them to take another. This does not involve the commitment of any city resources, but a request that some members of the council begin looking at downtown development - and developers - in a different way.

Developers such as Bowman and Deming are risking a great deal in downtown, not only their funds, but their reputations as well.

Critics might say that they can afford it, but the fact is that there are safer investments that involve less aggravation. Restoring an old building might be satisfying, but it can also bring unwelcome surprises, as contractors found out when they uncovered foundation problems at the Baldwin House, now the site of the University System of Maryland's downtown campus.

Had a previous council allowed Bowman to proceed with the renovation of that building, he would have encountered those problems. His willingness to take on that challenge, not knowing for sure all that might happen, makes him deserving of respect from the current council.

Deming is a more recent arrival, but he has gone about his work without pointing fingers at the city government, which has allowed its effort to develop market-rate housing downtown to stall.

Deming didn't gripe about that; he just started developing condominiums on his own.

Will his party be the salvation of downtown? No. No one-day event can carry such a burden. But those who are criticizing the party should compare it to other downtown events. Once you get past the Blues Fest and Augustoberfest, it's not a long list.

Hold Deming and Bowman accountable, yes, but give them some respect for what they've invested and for the fact that they haven't whined when the help other developers might have expected from the city hasn't been forthcoming.

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