Leaders: Transfer former hospital to nonprofit for publicly-subsidized redevelopment

Task force's recommendations presented to Washington County Commissioners

January 11, 2011|By HEATHER KEELS |
  • Andrew Sargent and Sharon Disque speak to Washington County Commissioners Tuesday morning about the redevelopment of the former Washington County Hospital.
Yvette May, Staff Photographers

HAGERSTOWN — Community leaders Tuesday recommended that Meritus Health transfer the former Washington County Hospital property to a nonprofit organization for a publicly-subsidized redevelopment, possibly as a mix of offices, stores and housing.

"We believe probably market forces are weak enough that we won't see the type of private investment that we'd all desire, and public subsidy will be necessary to get a quality revitalization that meets the community goals," said Sharon Disque, executive director of the Hagerstown Neighborhood Development Partnership and co-chairwoman of the Hospital Redevelopment Task Force that has met for the past few months to discuss the downtown property's future.

Disque and Co-chairman Andrew Sargent presented the task force's recommendations to the Washington County Commissioners during a commissioners' meeting Tuesday.

The group didn't resolve what type of use is best for the property, but members did agree the key would be to put it into the hands of an organization such as the Maryland Economic Development Corp. or the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation, called CHIEF, Disque said.

"If we don't have an entity such as CHIEF or MEDCO involved, then it's quite possible that the property will go to the willing, ready buyer who will not necessarily reflect the community's goals for this property," she said.

Those goals include maximizing job creation, increasing property values in that section of downtown and enhancing the area's quality of life, Disque said.

The former hospital property includes more than 16 acres in the southwest part of downtown Hagerstown.

In addition to the main hospital building at East Antietam and King streets, the property also includes the 40,384-square-foot Pangborn Hall, a 250-space parking garage and a series of parking lots that stretch as far north as Washington Street.

All have gone unused since Meritus Medical Center opened east of Hagerstown on Dec. 11.

"If we were in a stronger market, this could be a private sector investment project that was controlled through design guidelines or something like that, but in this real estate market, we felt that it was necessary for public intervention," Disque said.

Commissioner Bill McKinley asked if the committee attempted to reach out to investors to see if that assumption was correct.

"Actually the hospital's been marketing for several years with hardly a nibble," Disque said. "Probably really without a nibble."

Reuse study needed

The task force recommended that the next step should be a reuse study, including formulation of a strategic plan. That study would cost an estimated $75,000 to $100,000, but grant funding may be available from several sources, Disque said.

The county and the city of Hagerstown will be asked to contribute toward the study as well, she said.

"The idea being that if local government isn't willing to have at least a small piece, then do we really have community buy-in?" she said.

Once the property is transferred to a third-party, nonprofit owner, the task force recommended abating real property taxes on the property for that owner while awaiting redevelopment, Disque said.

"We felt there was no net loss to the community since the hospital was already tax exempt," she said.

The county can also help by supporting the expansion of the Hagerstown/Washington County Enterprise Zone boundary to include the hospital properties, Disque said.

The zone is part of a state program that rewards businesses with income tax and real property tax credits in return for job creation and investments.

How about a brewery?

McKinley asked what the task force saw as the ideal type of reuse, and Sargent chuckled as he shared one of the committee's dream uses for the property.

"With all the water and sewer allocation (assigned to that property), we thought either a distillery or a brewery would be great," he said.

Disque said the group thought a mix of office and retail, with residential above it and some public amenities, was a more realistic vision.

"Although I would like to see a brewery there, you can't hinge your redevelopment strategy on a single use," she said.

Throughout the talks, task force members limited themselves to approaches that could be accomplished within the next two years, Sargent said.

"It's kind of fun to think about what could happen there in 10 years given the economy turnaround and so forth, but we've got, basically, an immediate need here that needs to be addressed," he said.

That need is as much about preventing the wrong kind of redevelopment as encouraging the right kind, the task force chairmen said.

"If something goes in there that generates low cash revenue and causes deterioration around the adjacent properties, that's with us for decades," Disque said.

Though quick improvement is the task force's goal, members don't want the public to expect anything to happen overnight, she said.

"We believe that this is not a property that will redevelop in two years or three years or four years or even five years, and that the community should know expectations that it will happen in increments, but we all have to work together to get there," Disque said.

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