What happened to Rocky's downtown plan?

August 27, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

Over the years, watching attempts to redevelop Hagerstown's downtown area has been like observing an ant farm - something is always happening, but sometimes it's tough to figure out what the overall design is.

This week Sharon Disque of Hagers-town's Neighborhood Development Partnership (HNDP) came before the council to report that there is 500,000 square feet of space that could be renovated downtown.

Most of it is above ground level, Disque said and the projects would cost millions and under the present zoning ordinance would require parking that might be nearly impossible to provide economically.

Disque said that tax credits could cover some of the costs, that county government could help and that zoning regulations regarding parking could be modified.


Modifying parking regulations has the best chance of succeeding, particularly if developers collaborate on building new parking decks to fulfill their obligations to tenants.

As for tax credits, if city government were enthusiastic about them, it would have helped developer Manny Shaool use them to renovate his building on West Washington Street. Shaool's building is empty now and his home-design center is on the Dual Highway.

Can county government help bring new business to downtown? Probably, but if that's a county priority now, it's hard to see any evidence of that.

It's also frustrating to observe the process as it plays out, because it has taken so long for what seems obvious to become part of the city government's plans.

For years I've been saying is that one of the keys to downtown redevelopment is to get people with some disposable income to buy homes there.

For just as many years, downtown has been the housing of last resort, where too many landlords didn't care who you were as long as you paid the rent.

Then in 2003, consultant Thomas "Rocky" Wade told the Hagerstown City Council the same thing - that the success of downtown revitalization depended on bringing in people who, financially speaking, were not living month to month.

God bless the working poor, the Section 8 recipients who eke out a living for themselves and their families. But those folks are not going to eat at Duffy's on Potomac or purchase paintings or other artwork in the city's Arts & Entertainment District on South Potomac Street.

There are a number of condominium developments under way now, on Prospect Street and at the old Antietam Street School, But with prices starting at $100,000 per unit, it might take a while to sell out the buildings.

What I believe consultant Wade had in mind - and what I endorse - is the renovation of a half a block (or more) of single-family homes at a time in downtown, for sale to people who are looking to build equity or who just enjoy living in the city.

Being the only new homeowner in the block is one thing, but having three or more new homeowners there would provide a mutual support system - someone to accompany you to the Hagerstown City Council meeting when a neighbor begins his new hobby of breaking beer bottles in the alley.

Single-family homes are an easier sell than condos, which is why the City Council agreed to restrict the conversion of such homes to multiple-unit apartments in some zoning districts.

The council has to push HNDP to concentrate on single-family homes and on what the tourism people call "destination attractions."

Years ago, RJR Associates was hired to conduct a state study of ways to enhance tourism in the southern part of the county.

RJR's suggestion was a Civil War conference center, which would be the first stop for anyone visiting sites in the region.

Sharpsburg-area residents rejected the idea, so I suggested the idea be transplanted to downtown Hagerstown. Come downtown, see what happened where in the Civil War, then plan the next leg of your trip accordingly.

But while you're here, you might as well visit the Hager House, the Miller House and the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. By then it will be time for lunch or dinner, and as long as you're here, you might as well eat.

This vision has been articulated many times, in this newspaper and elsewhere. But never has anyone in the private sector of the government told me that the idea is stupid or that it wouldn't work.

What it will take is for someone, a member of the council or an economic-development official, to come up with a downtown master plan, then push to find funding for it. With no plan, each developer and each property owner work in isolation, hoping that what they do fits into the overall strategy for downtown revival.

My advice: Do the simple stuff first. Renovate small, single-family homes. Then, when that strategy begins to bear fruit, try something more ambitious, such as the renovation of downtown buildings' upper floors. Do the conventional first, then build on the success of that to create what for this area is a more unusual type of housing.

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

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