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Some state assistance now and then is a good thing

September 02, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

For me, the defining moment of the Holiday Motel in downtown Hagerstown occurred perhaps a dozen years back. The door was open to one of the second-floor rooms, which a gentleman was cleaning out - with a hose.

The, shall we say, colorful history of the Holiday Motel is well-documented, so it's little wonder that Hagerstown Councilman Lew Metzner would say, "Getting rid of the Holiday Motel is a pleasure."

What is a wonder is that council member Penny Nigh would vote against the project, which will take advantage of a low-interest loan from the state.

"Why should developers get low-interest loans when you and I can't?" she asked.

Let us count the ways.

Favorable loan rates with government backing are frequently offered in all walks of life when they encourage favorable results.

It would be interesting to hear Nigh's opinion of low-interest student loans used to pay for college. Does she frown on these because she herself is not eligible for one?

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What of low-interest loans to drought-affected farmers. Are they a bad thing? Farmers know the risks of weather, just as developers know the risks of building in Hagerstown. Why should they get special assistance?

Of course, "you and I" would be eligible for these loans if we were farmers or students, just as "you and I" would be eligible for low-interest loans if we were willing to risk our own capital to renovate a blighted building.

Making this more curious, no one talks tougher on crime issues than Nigh. Certainly she knows that the city block that is home to the Holiday Motel is, uh, morally challenged.

Does she so hate developers that she would deny them a few bucks rather than see a major source of vice wiped off the map?

And make no mistake, developer Skip Tovornik Jr.'s project will have greater reach than upon one single structure.

City blocks decay one building at a time as the cancer of blight spreads. But so are they reborn. A solid, modern anchor building attracts additional viable businesses and projects to the area.

I don't know the first thing about Tovornik, but I have to admire a man who would take such a chance on such an iffy location. It may work out, it may not. But fortunately, the remaining members of the council believe it is worth some state assistance to find out.

If nothing else, they know the elimination of the hotel is addition by subtraction. Remember, when the council drew up its list of "conditions" for the hospital's move out of town, nuking the Holiday was front and center - perhaps in the name of preventive health care.

Nigh's point should not be entirely dismissed; if private enterprise can do a project on its own, it should. I might agree with her, particularly on the issue of tax credits passed out like candy to shopping centers that had no particular need and, if anything, carried with them some negative baggage associated with sprawl and traffic.

But much of downtown Hagerstown still is not healthy soil. It needs to be watered and fertilized.

Progress is measured by the fact that it can now produce anything at all. It wasn't so very long ago that the council couldn't even give city property away. People bought buildings on speculation with no intention of fixing them up - they just figured that one day the city might turn around and they could be resold at a profit.

For much of the past 25 years, the only construction downtown was paid for entirely on the taxpayers' dime, including the social services building, district courthouse and, most recently, the University System of Maryland campus.

Now, however, the lion's share of construction is paid for primarily with private capital, benefiting only minimally from the public trough.

Instead of grumbling about this limited assistance, it might be better to see it for what it is - seed money that has to be spent if the city is to ever reach the point where the downtown is lucrative enough for developers to profitably pay their own way.

Beyond the money, the council's help is also symbolic. The word in the investment community is that any development in Hagerstown happens in spite of the council, not because of it.

Most inner-city developers are greeted by councils with open arms. Here, all too often, they have been greeted with suspicion and nitpicking.

The Holiday vote was one small chance at starting to repair that image, and fortunately the city came through. Of course, this was a no-brainer, but similar no-brainers have been handled with no brains.

It might have been nice had the decision been unanimous, but hey, one step at a time.

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

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