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Hagerstown enters a new era

June 02, 2009

Congratulations are in order for Hagerstown's successful council candidates, who got down to business on Monday and began the effort of, as they say in the sports world, rebuilding.

This council will be greeted by high expectations, paradoxically because the council before it set the bar rather low. First and foremost is the matter of professionalism. This should not have to be stated, but in light of the recent past, it's good to reinforce the idea that everyone with business before the city be treated equally and with respect.

That includes citizens, developers, staff, business owners, other council members - anyone who sets foot in City Hall. Shouting, interrupting, ignoring and walking out of the chambers do not leave good impressions in the minds of city residents, or people who may be considering Hagerstown for a new home or business. It is possible to be friendly, even to those with whom you disagree.

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This should be the easy part. More difficult will be some near-term problems that are readily apparent.

Historically, national economic trends have always run a little ahead of Hagerstown. That means that, although there are signs of a national recovery, the city may have yet to see the worst of the economic downturn. We've seen our share of business failures in town, and council members should be braced for more - and have its own stimulus plan in reserve, should tax breaks or incentives be needed to help struggling businesses weather the storm.

Traditionally, more attention has been paid to attracting new businesses than helping existing ones. So the city has frequently been caught flat-footed when businesses fail or move away. The council should touch base with its business constituents early and often to prevent crises before they happen. With that in mind, this might be a good time to reassess the city's system of permitting and the ease, or lack thereof, with which businesses can get off the ground or expand. In poor economic times, we do not have the luxury of being picky over minutia.

This economic pulse-taking extends to homeowners and other residents too. It should build on efforts to help the unemployed find - and get to - work. The council should also be mindful of taxes and fees, when many residents have had trouble paying for basic necessities. Older residents must be cared for as well, with redoubled efforts to ensure that they have easy access downtown to food and medicine.

As for projects, the buildings being vacated by the hospital are an obvious grounds for concern. Several uses have been mentioned, but there has been no major initiative to date. The city can't wait until the buildings are empty, or leveled, to decide what it wants to do.

Foot-dragging has also hampered, if not killed, projects on the city's East End and Baltimore Street. Time may or may not have passed these ideas by, but if nothing else they are a good lesson going forward: Decide upon improvements and act. Don't become so hung up over details or personalities that momentum is lost.

Same with private developers. The Hagerstown Advance marketing project may pay for itself if it can get the message out that this council has changed and the city is once again business friendly - a message that the council must back with its actions. Outside developers were giving up on the city because dealing with the past council was too much of a headache. This council has the power to change that.

It was Hagerstown's luck that just as the city appeared to be turning the corner toward a downtown rebirth, the economy tanked and the housing crisis stemmed the flow of people with metropolitan jobs and disposable income into the county.

We understand that some optimism and expectations may have to be tempered, but the opportunity exists to cut losses, build on what's here and think big. (Might the City Light Plant property become a waterfront development along Antietam Creek?)

There is plenty on the table for a council that is willing to fight for its citizens instead of fighting against anything that might stand to benefit them.

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