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Surgeon to challenge Hancock mayor

January 04, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

HANCOCK -- A critic of Hancock's decision to purchase the former Fleetwood Travel Trailers plant is challenging the town's mayor for his seat in the upcoming municipal election.

Dr. Ralph T. Salvagno, an orthopedic surgeon who moved to Hancock a few years ago, said he decided to run for mayor because he has come to consider the town home and he has some concerns about the direction in which it is headed.

"This seemed like a good way for me to get my ideas out into the public, win or lose," he said.

Incumbent Daniel A. Murphy, a veterinarian serving his sixth term as mayor, also is running in the Jan. 26 election.

The two council members whose seats are up for election, Robert A. McCusker and Maurice "Rusty" Wheeler, are not running for re-election. Four people have registered to run for those seats: Nigel Dardar, Dennis Hudson, Randy Pittman and Jeffrey A. Ratcliff.

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Economic revitalization is the centerpiece of Salvagno's and Murphy's campaigns for mayor, but the candidates disagree on how to pursue it.

Murphy's plan centers around the former Fleetwood property, which the town bought last summer with a $900,000 donation from a wealthy former resident after the plant sat empty for about three years. The town hopes to rent space at the property to companies that will bring significant jobs to the economically depressed town.

Hancock has lost hundreds of jobs over the past decade and a half through the closures of the London Fog coat factory in 1994 and Fleetwood in 2005. Last spring, it lost its only remaining manufacturing jobs when Rayloc ceased production at its Hancock plant, laying off 260 workers.

Murphy said it has been hard to convince companies to relocate or open new branches in the current economic climate, but officials are continuing to market the Fleetwood property. In addition, Murphy is supporting a developer's efforts to build a restaurant and hotel complex on the east end of town, a project that would bring some jobs and could also attract more shoppers to Main Street businesses, he said.

Salvagno said the purchase of the Fleetwood property was "ill-conceived and ill-timed." After the purchase, Murphy and Town Manager David Smith assured residents that no town money would need to be spent on the property because maintenance and improvements would likely be funded by state grants. However, the state is facing a potential budget deficit of up to $2 billion and is unlikely to issue Hancock any grants, Salvagno said.

"The other unfortunate thing is that we've had a very generous gift given to the town, and that money used in a different way may have really had a significant impact on the town," he said.

Salvagno said he would like to see the Fleetwood property back in private hands. He said that, if elected, he would attempt to sell the property and give the proceeds to the donor.

To improve the economy, Salvagno said it might be time for the town to move in a different direction. The town might not be able to return to the retail success it enjoyed in the 1950s and '60s or the industrial economy of more recent years, he said.

"Maybe we can't recapture that, but we can kind of create a new Hancock, really based on the recreational opportunities and the history."

His plan would hinge primarily on encouraging further development of the Western Maryland Rail Trail and emphasizing the town's Civil War history to bring more visitors into town.

Salvagno's other concerns about the town include its approach to dealing with youths, its need for a more coordinated emergency response system, its need for a more proactive partnership with county and state officials, and its need for a long-term strategic plan for infrastructure improvements.

He said the town should develop youth programs and work with the high school to ensure young people have counseling for direction after high school. Instead of focusing on punishing vandalism, officials should work to create more pride in the town by removing boarded windows and holding landlords accountable for their properties, he said.

Murphy, too, said he wants to focus on holding landlords accountable. He said the town has a significant "absentee landlord" situation and he plans to investigate strategies other towns have used to deal with rental properties that cause frequent problems.

Overall, Murphy said he thinks the town has been doing a good job in the past few years, pointing to improved parks, a strong arts council and operations run so efficiently that the town was able to give residents a break on their sanitation bills this month.

Murphy, Hudson and Dardar are running as a team.

Salvagno, who is running in partnership with Pittman, said he will campaign door-to-door, but would wait until after the holidays to put out campaign signs.

The last day to register to vote in Hancock's municipal election was Dec. 31.

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