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The latest progress report on downtown Hagerstown

July 18, 2007

For more than 30 years, I have worked in downtown Hagerstown. I've eaten in its restaurants, shopped in its stores and watched it change from a major retail center to a conglomeration of specialty shops and government agencies.

I'm concerned about downtown - and not just because it's convenient for me to be able to walk to lunch or to pick up a pair of socks.

Why? Because barring a decision by the Washington County government to relocate all of its offices to the suburbs, downtown is the county seat.

Businesspeople looking to locate in this county will meet officials of the Economic Development Department at their downtown offices.

And whether or not it's fair, the center city is seen as an indicator of a community's economic health. Research done by universities and the American Planning Association backs this up.

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Not only do healthy downtowns contribute more tax revenue, but they also prevent sprawl, preserve historic architecture and act as incubators for start-up firms that can't afford to lease space in malls or strip shopping centers.

Recently, entrepreneur Mike Deming and longtime local businessman Don Bowman have major investments in downtown and it seems as if a new restaurant opens every month.

Last Saturday night, I observed what appeared to be many happy and well-behaved patrons at two South Potomac Street clubs - Duffy's and 43 South - as they enjoyed live music and the night's cool breezes.

But just as in Baltimore's popular Fells Point area, clubs are only part of what makes an area vibrant. It also takes residents, preferably some who have some disposable income.

As Deming said during a recent interview, those people are the key to supporting downtown businesses such as a grocery store. If the people are there, the businesses will come, he said.

Four years ago, in June 2003, consultant Thomas "Rocky" Wade told the Hagerstown mayor and City Council much the same thing.

Wade said the city should begin by setting up a community development corporation (CDC) that Wade said would be a public-private partnership.

This CDC would evaluate project proposals and help developers with regulatory problems, he said, and should take no more than 90 days to set up.

By April 2004, the CDC had been set up and according to Richard Phoebus, then president and chief executive of the Washington County Industrial Foundation, Inc., the foundation and the CDC were looking "at a project that is of interest to us."

By August of that year, Phoebus was talking about a project close to the downtown core where the CDC and a developer would build 30 to 35 new market-rate town houses.

By year's end, it was revealed that the site of the project was the old Massey Body Shop property on Baltimore Street.

A dedication was held and enthusiasm reigned. But then in late 2006, the steam went out of the housing market and the development company selected by Hagerstown's Neighborhood Development Partnership decided to put its efforts into a project more likely to sell quickly.

Sharon Disque, executive director of HNDP, said this week that Orchard Development has paid an extension fee that will keep the company involved until at least January.

Translation: No construction will start this season, but Disque said that HNDP is doing other things to spur downtown development. They include:

Landscape architect Paula Horrigan is coming back to meet with the Hagerstown Planniong Commission July 25.

HNDP did an analysis of the mainly-unused upper floors in the downtown retail area, Disque said, with a view toward whether they could be converted to upscale rentals or condominiums.

Some of the city-offered incentives wouldn't apply to such development and need to be updated, Disque said.

So does the zoning ordinance, which requires that there be two parking spaces for each unit created. Many buildings go from lot line to lot line, she said, which means there's no place to create parking spaces.

The Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance's exemption for projects under six units needs to be retained, Disque said.

One thing impeding housing development in downtown is that the cost of property is so high, Disque said. It's tough to pay a premium price for a property, rehabilitate it into condos or apartments and still make a profit on them, she said.

It is unfortunate that real estate prices don't function like stock-market share prices.

When stock prices are overpriced, there's a downward correction. When real estate prices have been set at a certain level, sellers are reluctant to reduce prices, even when it's obvious that without a price cut, the property won't be an easy sell.

There are many things beyond anyone's control in this situation, but as I told Disque, I hope to see a fully functioning, vibrant downtown before I start drawing Social Security.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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