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Lobbyists to focus on protecting resources

October 30, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN -- When it comes to lobbying for local interests in Annapolis, next year's focus will be on protecting local resources from cuts, rather than requesting a lot of new funding or legislation, Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce President Brien J. Poffenberger said Friday at a meeting of the Greater Hagerstown Committee.

The Greater Hagerstown Committee, a group of local business and community leaders, is one of eight local organizations and agencies whose leaders meet each year to set an agenda for the Washington County Community Lobbying Coalition. Since 2006, the coalition has hired a lobbyist to watch out for the area's interests during Maryland General Assembly sessions.

Normally, the lobbying coalition's agenda includes three to five proactive requests and a "watch list" of areas to monitor for threats of cuts, Poffenberger said. In light of the state's bleak budget outlook, coalition members decided to put next year's emphasis on the watch list, with only one proactive request, he said.

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"When we go to Annapolis, we have to be mindful of the environment they're working in," Poffenberger said. "If we go down there with a laundry list of all the bridges and roads and schools we could possibly want, frankly, we're going to look naive."

The proactive item the coalition will pursue is money to restore the Big Slackwater section of the C&O Canal towpath, a 4,000-foot stretch that has been closed since 1996 due to flood damage, he said.

In that section, boats briefly entered the Potomac River. The canal's builders erected a stone retaining wall in the river, filled in the area behind the wall, and on top created a towpath for the mules that pulled the boats, Poffenberger said.

After the canal ceased operation in 1924, the retaining wall went unmaintained for decades as storms damaged the wall and eroded the towpath, Poffenberger said.

Today, the Big Slackwater section of the towpath is unpassable, and walkers and bicyclists must take a five-mile detour.

This year, the C&O Canal National Historical Park was awarded $12.1 million in federal stimulus funding to restore the Big Slackwater towpath, but the total project cost is estimated at $16.5 million, Poffenberger said.

The coalition hopes to help the park get the remaining $4.4 million from the state's Transportation Enhancement Program (TEP), which distributes federal funds earmarked for trail-related projects, he said.

TEP grants require matching funds. If the timing is right, the park would be able to use stimulus funds for that match, Poffenberger said.

C&O Canal officials estimate that the towpath restoration project will increase the number of visitors to the canal by 60,000 a year and create $2.2 million in additional annual economic benefit to surrounding communities, Poffenberger said.

It also would create about 40 jobs during the construction phase, he said.

The coalition identified 10 "watch list" items for its lobbyist to monitor, making sure "that if any of this stuff comes up that will influence or affect Washington County, Hagerstown or any of the outlying areas, that we know about it before anybody else does," Poffenberger said.

This year's watch list includes the Dual Highway-Edgewood Drive intersection improvement project, The University System of Maryland at Hagerstown and gaming revenue, among other items.

Lobbying coalition funding traditionally comes from the Chamber of Commerce, the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation (CHIEF), the City of Hagerstown, the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Washington County Free Library, Washington County government and Washington County Public Schools. The city, county and school board's participation this year is pending their votes on the subject, Poffenberger said.

Coalition Watch List



The Washington County Community Lobbying Coalition's watch list for the coming session includes the following items.

o Dual Highway-Edgewood Drive intersection improvement project

o Washington County Free Library expansion and renovation project

o University System of Maryland at Hagerstown

o Gaming revenue

o Science building project at Hagerstown Community College

o New Maryland State Police barracks project

o State costs that might be shifted to local government

o Identification of available stimulus grants

o Mount Aetna Farms infrastructure

o Washington County Community Action Council's transportation program

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