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State help sought to fill vacant buildings

February 07, 2009|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

ANNAPOLIS -- As the economy worsens and businesses close, buildings in Washington County are being left unused.

Some, such as the former Lowe's building and the vacant Sears building in the North End of Hagerstown, could benefit from renovations and new owners, officials said last week.

"With the economy, certainly anywhere where retail overbuilt, there is a greater likelihood that we're now going to see retail space vacant," said Brien Poffenberger, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

With that in mind, Poffenberger said it's important for the state to devise an easier way for the government to use vacant buildings to suit their needs. Tax incentives could be used to encourage the renovation of old buildings, as opposed to the building of new ones, he said.

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Poffenberger said that topic was discussed with state lawmakers last week as local officials lobbied in Annapolis for local support. Poffenberger said lawmakers were receptive to the idea and recognized the need, but said they doubted there was enough money in the state's budget to support a statewide task force dedicated to adaptive reuse of vacant buildings.

Instead, it was more likely the issue would be included in talks among existing groups.

Local buildings

Robin Ferree, deputy director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission, said only a small portion of the available buildings in the county are for sale. Most are for lease, which would make it difficult to renovate them to fit another need.

Most vacant buildings are in Hagerstown, he said.

"Would it be economical to take a warehouse and convert it into an office building? On a case-by-case basis, perhaps," Ferree said. "Look for available office buildings first instead of spending a lot to change a building ... if tax incentives make it more attractive to do that ... perhaps."

Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, said it's possible for both government and private business to benefit from state-initiated incentives.

Serafini, who recently joined the House of Delegates' Environmental Matters Committee, said there are many environmental benefits to reusing existing structures. It prevents current open space from being developed and prevents the addition of more blacktop, which creates runoff.

Serafini said the former Sheetz on Maugans Avenue, which was converted into a Sprint store, is a good example of a business moving into a vacant structure.

"Instead of a vacant building, it's being utilized and upgraded and looks good," he said.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said adaptive reuse of existing buildings could create a lot of local opportunities.

"I think we can be very creative, and at the same time create income opportunities and increase our tax base and improve the appearance of the abandoned buildings," Donoghue said.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said most incentives and discussions by a task force studying the use of currently vacant buildings would focus on government and largely education.

"It's basically limited by the imagination of the people involved largely," Munson said. "The cost savings, I believe, is something that should certainly be taken into consideration."

Washington County Public Schools

At one time, Washington County Public Schools officials considered moving the school system's administrative offices and some classrooms into the former Allegheny Energy building.

However, Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, says officials moved too slowly and missed an opportunity to save taxpayers millions of dollars. The building was sold last year to an India-based university planning to open its first American campus at the Downsville Pike site in Hagerstown.

"We just weren't ready," Myers said. "That's one of the fallacies of government. We were sitting there with a property for sale for $8 million. And it was worth every penny."

Myers said government officials need help with the process of adapting old, vacant buildings for other uses, and perhaps even some incentives to make that option more attractive.

Myers said a proposal by local officials to create a statewide task force charged with examining adaptive reuse of buildings is a good idea.

Additional incentives might have made it easier for Washington County Public Schools to secure the Allegheny Energy building, Myers said. The school system could save millions by moving schools into existing buildings -- even with the renovation costs that result, he said.

For example, the Allegheny building and renovations to make it suitable would have cost about $15 million.

New school buildings that have been constructed recently range from about $22 million to $26 million. A new administrative building would cost about $10 million, Myers said.

The cost savings to the school system should be hard to pass up, he said, and the state should find ways to encourage that cost savings by offering tax credits for those who utilize an existing building instead of building a new one.

"This state has got to start taking a hard look at savings," Myers said. "How we can save money, instead of always finding ways we can spend money."

School Board President Wayne D. Ridenour said the school system was interested in the Allegheny building, but the necessary feasibility study would have cost about $200,000 -- more than the County Commissioners serving at the time wanted to spend.

"For us to do it ... there were some good things about it," Ridenour said. "But there were some problems."

He said it would have cost millions to renovate the building to fit the school system's needs.

The school system did decide to move its maintenance operations and some administrative staff into a former car dealership on Frederick Street, and last week, School Board Vice President Ruth Anne Callaham said that move saved the school system money despite having to renovate the building.




For a list of available business properties in Washington County, go to www.hagerstownedc.org

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