With hospital, slow course is proper

January 29, 2011

Sometimes the line between a burden and an opportunity is the width of a hair. When the old Washington County hospital is demolished, as it almost certainly will be, about 16 acres of Hagerstown high ground will be a rather obvious bald spot on the crown of the city.

Public and private business officials, to their credit, have not sugar-coated the situation. This isn’t the right economic climate to be peddling property or unveiling some gee-whiz project that will cost taxpayers a fistful, with no guarantee of success. (Happily, no one seems to be seriously promoting a convention center, which is so often the fall-back solution for any distressed property.)

At first blush it might seem a shame, or a waste, that the old hospital complex must be torn down. But the deeper one delves into the reuse idea, the more problems present themselves. Any interior reconfiguration raises the specter of asbestos, and beyond that, an old medical facility has additional issues that are not present in, say, an old warehouse.

But the most critical issue, obviously, is that no one wants it.

So while those who believe that it would be “nice” if the hospital were turned into a this or a that, the reality is that tremendous sums of money would be needed, and in two years of marketing no investors have come to the fore.

Meritus Medical Center is paying for the demolition, which as President and CEO James Hamill alludes to, will save us another aging, dilapidated building on the skyline to go with the City Light Plant on that end of town.

But that isn’t to say that, once it’s gone, we should put up a for sale sign on the land and wash our hands of the whole thing.

Andrew Sargent, who along with Sharon Disque, is co-chair of the task force studying the property, is correct when he says, “To ignore its immensity — how impactful an area it is now and will be — would be a mistake.”

We also agree with the task force view that the property should be transferred to a development agency, which will be better equipped than the hospital to find a new owner or developer for the property once the economy picks up.

This might indeed take five or six years as development officials suggest. But it will be worth the wait if a decent use can be found for the land.

There are two major fears at the moment: If the hospital were to remain standing, there is every indication it would fall into decay and become a major white elephant for the city. If it is demolished and the land sold without consideration of the owner, any number of undesirable uses could result.

We believe the task force — and we thank these volunteers for their service —  is taking the smart position by, it would appear, agreeing that the hospital be demolished and the land shepherded by a proper authority.

While we all wish for a grand new use for the property, nothing is even remotely on the horizon at this time. But time passes and conditions change. If we keep our powder dry on this valuable part of the downtown, our burden of today should become an opportunity of tomorrow.

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