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Some won't be pleased, but city and county make positive moves

April 27, 2008

Aside from Council Member Kelly Cromer's shopping habits, the main thing viewers of the Hagerstown City Council meeting learned this week was a reiteration of an old truth - if you live near an interstate exit, prepare yourself for commercial development.

The council, on a 4-1 vote, approved a plan that may pave the way, so to speak, for a $242 million shopping center east of the city on the corner of Interstate 70 and U.S. 40. Council members went to great pains to tell constituencies that might be offended by the move that this is just one step in a process and the center is by no means a done deal. And this does give the council a way to pass the political hot potato back into the court of the County Commissioners, who must make the final decision.

While mindful of some valid and some not-so-valid concerns of residents who live in the immediate area, this was a good decision by a council that hasn't always been perceived as friendly toward economic initiatives.

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No, the center will not provide the advertised 9,000 jobs, a number cooked up out of a formula that basically says if you buy gas to drive to the center, you are "employing" the chap who stocks the service station's shelves with fruit pies.

But we know that. All developers highball employment stats - it's part of the game. We also know that the developers' nod toward the downtown - while appreciated - is likely to have a minimal effect. Cromer, cross-examining the developers like she were lead counsel in the O.J. Simpson trial or something, insisted that women shop to shop, and will not be inclined to hop on a shuttle bus to dine in town.

She's right, of course. Nor does it seem entirely plausible that men dragged along on these shopping extravaganzas will ride the shuttle to visit city museums or galleries. A man who is miserable shopping is going to be entertained by watercolors?

A more intriguing idea from the developers is that the shuttles they will provide will allow city residents access to jobs at the center. That might actually work.

But big picture, it's hard to say that the shopping center on I-70 would significantly hurt downtown - what it is more likely to hurt is similar shopping centers on the city's fringes. And truth be told, although I never thought I would utter this phrase in a million years, Washington County does need more shopping, at least on the east side. With the price of gas, an extra 20-mile round trip to the mall or Centre at Hagerstown matters. Coupled with the fact that highway interchanges can't be expected to remain cow pastures forever, the city's action makes sense.

If the city's decision could be considered progress for that side of town, even better news was coming out of the County Commissioners, who stepped up plans for the long-awaited southern bypass. With all the tittering of the past couple of months regarding the Funkstown bridge, the real answer is a real road, not one that squeezes cars into a one-lane bottleneck.

Of course someone's ox is likely to get gored by this project as well, but the commissioners should remember the lesson on the 1990s, when plans for a Robinwood bypass were scrapped when the politically paralyzed county couldn't find a route that didn't offend at least one person. How much vehicular misery might we have escaped had the commissioners showed a little gumption and built a road then that clearly needed to be built.

Taxpayers might also note the costs of building roads then as opposed to the costs of building them now. Delaying inevitable construction doesn't save any money, to say the least.

And speaking of costs, it was interesting to see that on the same day the Washington County Commissioners stepped up plans for the $30 million southern bypass, the city of Martinsburg, W.Va., was announcing approval of another much-needed road project on the north side of town costing about $15 million.

The difference? Most of the funding for the Martinsburg project - $13 million - is coming not from Martinsburg, but from the federal government, courtesy of Sens. Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller.

The difference in the way the Eastern Panhandle is treated by its congressional delegation and the way Washington County is treated by its congressional delegation could not be more vivid.

This can't be chalked up to politics. Both Berkeley and Washington counties generally vote Republican. Both have two Democratic senators and a Republican representative. But while the West Virginia delegation is keenly attuned to the needs of the Panhandle, our delegation barely knows we exist. They show up every election year to tour Mack, and that's about it. When Hancock suffered a major economic blow with multiple plant closings, so far as I know they barely even dropped us a card. If that had happened in, say, Kearneysville, think Byrd and Rockefeller wouldn't have been front and center to try to soften the blow?

Of course there may be a reason for this. When the historic hotel in Boonsboro burned, Gov. Martin O'Malley was spot-on, promising state help. Just weeks later, Del. Chris Shank repaid the favor by blasting the governor for his religious beliefs, of all things.

Just another dysfunctional day in Washington County political circles.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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