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Big projects haven't worked so well

maybe it's time to think small

July 01, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

In baseball and public works, everyone likes the home run.

Baltimore has its Inner Harbor, Washington, D.C., its Smithsonian, San Antonio its River Walk, Raleigh-Durham its Research Triangle.

Nice if you can get them.

These home runs guarantee a steady flow of people, money and vibrancy into a community and serve as mainstays for countless other attractions.

Sometimes though, it is helpful to face the fact that there is no single silver bullet to guarantee a community's fame and fortune. If that is the case, a community must develop a patchwork quilt of smaller attractions that, together, are bigger than the sum of their parts.

Two major local initiatives, or proposed initiatives, of the past decade were the Civil War museum and the Hagerstown airport runway extension.

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The proposed $40 million museum fizzled outright; the $60 million airport runway is indeed being extended, but county officials are lowering expectations of its potential at every turn.

This week, yet another airline announced that it can't make any money on passenger service out of Hagerstown without federal subsidies. So naturally, it plans to end service on Sept. 30.

We've seen this happen so often it's hardly news anymore. Each time, another subsidy and another carrier comes through at the last minute, but the truth is obvious: On its own, Hagerstown can't support a profitable passenger service.

In 2002, airport officials, touting the need for a longer runway said regional jets would be the "wave of the future." The idea was that travelers - in exchange for shorter lines and easy parking - would drive to a "regional hub" to avoid the crush of metropolitan airports.

From there, they would be jetted to a major hub, or an outright destination.

At the time, critics questioned how an airport that couldn't fill a 30-seat turboprop could expect to fill a 70-seat jet. Those concerns were dismissed under the "build it and they will come" philosophy.

Reality has since set in, and officials now say the "runway is not really all about commercial service."

That's an important realization. Just because you swing for the fences and miss, doesn't mean you can't manufacture a run with a walk, a single to right and a sacrifice fly.

The long runway can still be an attraction to industries that, for example, specialize in jet repair. And creative passenger opportunities exist. Some southern beach cities are subsidizing flights from northern cities to their towns.

A regional hub would have been nice, but in its absence, the airport can still cobble success out of a series of smaller deals.

A mammoth Civil War museum would have been nice too. But like the airport, it was always a matter of numbers. It didn't take a full-blown marketing study to suspect that such a massive endeavor would never pay for itself with the foot traffic we could reasonably hope to expect.

Several days ago, however, Hagerstown Council Member Penny Nigh floated an interesting and commendable compromise. Rather than demolish a city block for a grand new building, Nigh suggests the city renovate the historic Alms House on Locust Street and perhaps fashion it into a more modest Civil War museum.

That's exactly the type of project the city can manage, and while it won't become a be-all, end-all destination, it would become a valuable piece of the Hagerstown puzzle that is slowly taking shape.

Needless to say, it would also preserve an 18th century building that is steeped in history, and help stabilize a struggling city block.

That's a worthy goal in itself, and because of that, the city doesn't "need" 100,000 visitors to it a year to justify the cost. A small, steady stream of visitors would do just fine. As Nigh says, "we could make this a place for everyone."

There is a very good chance that such a museum would attract several thousand people a year to a downtown that they wouldn't have set foot in otherwise.

We tend to get a bit wrapped up in individual statistics, when it's more important to look at the whole. Yes, the Hagerstown Suns baseball team might "only" attract 1,000 people to a game.

But add that the number of people crossing city lines to visit Discovery Station, the ice rink, the Maryland Theatre, City Park, the university campus, city restaurants, the Arts Council, library - and now, hopefully, the proposed Civil War museum and school for the arts. Take a step back and a larger picture begins to emerge.

Every pixel is important because it's part of the photograph.

Since such an ample slice of Washington County's historical hat is hung on the peg of the Civil War, it's not only fitting that the downtown get in on the action, it's distressing that nothing has come to fruition before this.

Museums are curious things. For an adult, they can generate mild to enthusiastic interest. But to a child they can open up a new world. They can plant the seed of a career. When the arts school opens downtown, a flood of bright students will enter the city. Any and all educational diversions would be most welcome.

Nigh's idea is a good one that comes at a good time. And for Hagerstown, manageability is more important at the moment than magnificence. It's a goal that can, and should, be accomplished. Grandiose schemes haven't worked out so well for us in the past, so maybe the lesson here is to think small - but think often.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His e-mail address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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