Task force should take time in redeveloping hospital

January 14, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND

The best news concerning the redevelopment of the old hospital building in southeast Hagerstown, as explained to the Washington County Commissioners on Tuesday, is that it might take a couple of years before we see any results. Or three. Or five.

To clarify, it might not be good news that redevelopment will take so long, but it is good news that the men and women charged with finding a new use for the old place realize that hurried solutions frequently lead to future headaches.

"If something goes in there that generates low cash revenue and causes deterioration around the adjacent properties, that's with us for decades," said Sharon Disque, co-chairwoman of the Hospital Redevelopment Task Force.

Essentially, I see this as a shot across the bow of any number of local developers whose vision for Washington County begins and ends at mini-storage units.


Those charged with finding a new vocation for Meritus Medical Center's old hospital might —if they haven't already — take a lesson from the old Fort Ritchie complex at Cascade, which needed to be redeveloped after the U.S. Army closed the base.

There, as the years went by, redevelopment boards alternated between being too picky and too desperate. Nothing seemed good enough at first, but when the community got restless, the redevelopers settled on Role Models Academy, which itself had more troubles than the youths they were supposed to have served. Role Models and its lawsuit-happy director dogged Fort Ritchie for years.

Although Fort Ritchie was a lot bigger and had the nagging problem of live artillery shells scattered beneath it, in some ways the hospital property might be a harder sell.

The buildings (or parts of them) that are to come down at Meritus' expense are historic, but not in a good way. The main hospital was not exactly designed by William Van Allen, and the property as a whole is mindful of what a toddler might assemble given his first set of Legos.

The hospital complex is not without its functional segments — it has a perfectly good parking garage, except now that the hospital's gone there is little reason anyone would want to park there unless you hit a really busy day at Sheetz.

The property also carries with it a ton of approved sewer and water capacity, leading task force members to wistfully suggest that it would be a good spot for a brewery. Even better, it might be the only brewery in America with a helicopter landing pad ("Get this lager to the White House right away!").

A private developer or two had expressed interest in the property before the recession and financial crisis, but that was so long ago it almost seems like a different era. It was a time of, as it turned out, irrational exuberance in Hagerstown when a lot of developers made plans and a lot of those plans fell through when credit and consumer spending dried up.

So needless to say, the hospital isn't the only Hagerstown property in limbo at the moment, as private capital waits to see where the economy is going next. Unfortunately for us, things had gotten so bad nationwide that there are now lots of juicy opportunities nationwide for private enterprise to exploit before it once again sets its sights on Hagerstown.

But the cycle will turn as it always has. Until then, the hospital task force is recommending the property and its costs be transferred from Meritus to a state or local development agency, perhaps with some financial help from local governments. It's a bet on the idea that money spent now will be more than repaid once the property is sold to a high-quality, private-sector concern, whenever that might be.

Geographically speaking, the hospital property is high ground. That matters because there won't be any "hiding" bad development from residents and visitors. Further, there have been stirrings of East End redevelopment for years, centering on the hospital, Municipal Stadium and the old City Light plant. Somewhere in there, someone with a better mind than I might be able to create a vibrant new face for that side of town — I certainly hope so. I think we all do. But there have been so many East End fits and starts that I'm falling into the believe-it-when-I-see-it category.

Meantime, if intervention is the answer, the redevelopment task force appears to be taking the proper approach. Decisions and fire sales that are made in times of stress are generally regretted. A good project five years from now is better than a lousy project today.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or by e-mail at Tune in to the Rowland Rant video on or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 at 6:30 p.m. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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