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While they're here, let's pick the preservationists' brains - 5/28/08

May 28, 2008|By BOB MAGINNIS

Local residents will get some fresh ideas on historic preservation strategies this week, when Preservation Maryland brings its annual Preservation and Revitalization Conference to Hagerstown.

On Thursday and Friday, more than 400 preservationists will meet downtown to talk about what works and what doesn't.

Historic preservation in Washington County certainly includes more than Hagerstown, but since much of the downtown area is in an historic district, it's crucial that the municipality succeeds there.

I suggest that the group look at the following issues:

Does the city need new ideas or does it just need to implement old ones?

In June 2003, consultant Thomas "Rocky" Wade said there had been enough talk and enough studies about how to revitalize downtown.

His conclusion, shared by the Urban Renewal and Historic Preservation Forum of the Greater Hagerstown Committee: More homeowners with some disposable income, to support businesses there.

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Wade recommended this be done by forming a community development corporation - which has been done - and beginning to build new housing or renovating old properties for new owners.

But the troubles of the housing market have slowed a project planned for the Massey tract on Baltimore Street.

Let's ask the experts how to get it running in high gear.

Would a destination attraction help downtown prosper?

Back in the mid-1990s, historian Dennis Frye and a group proposed building a Civil War museum in the old Baldwin House property on Washington Street.

But after then-Gov. Parris Glendening decided that the University System of Maryland's Hagerstown campus would go there, the project lost steam and has since been abandoned. Yet the reason why it was a good idea is still valid today.

Hagerstown's location is a natural jumping-off point to other Civil War sites in the region, including Gettysburg, Antietam and Harpers Ferry. In addition, all of the city's tourism promotions have emphasized the link to Civil War history.

On the same theme, can anything be done to place the late Marguerite Doleman's collection of African-American memorabilia in a publicly accessible place?

When Doleman was alive, her home was where the items were kept, including many examples of commercial products that used images of African-Americans on their labels.

These items need to be seen and people coming to Hagerstown to see them would be one more boost for local tourism.

Why should anyone care about whether downtown succeeds?

According to studies collected by Solutions for America, a project of the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, the economic health - or lack of same - of a community's downtown affects the entire community.

This is the same conclusion reached by David Rusk in his book, "Cities Without Suburbs."

If relatively affluent suburbs surround an impoverished center city, then the economic health of the outer areas will be affected in a negative way, Rusk said.

If you doubt it, get a copy of Rusk's book, which cites more studies than there are ducks in the City Park lake.

Is there any way to capitalize of the success of the Hagerstown City Market for more than one day per week?

Now that Washington County has a full-time marketing person for agriculture, could vendors be encouraged to hire someone to sell their produce on weekdays so that they wouldn't have to be on-site all the time?

The Western Maryland Blues Fest draws thousands to Hagers-town, yet there is no dedicated blues club (at least none that I'm aware of) in the area. Is it possible to get one going here?

Maybe it isn't. Perhaps the blues fans who come here once a year wouldn't return every week or month. But with thousands of people already familiar with the city as a blues venue, wouldn't it make some sense to explore the idea?

As someone who last week marked 35 years working in the downtown Hagerstown area, I've got an interest in what happens there.

I have lived in a number of downtown locations - East Franklin Street, Broadway and South Prospect Street - and am rooting for the area to succeed. This week, let's ask the experts if they have any helpful advice for us.

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

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