Departing stores fought the good fight

August 13, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND

Two of the deepest pegs that helped tie the tent of economic legitimacy to downtown Hagerstown were uprooted this week, with the announced departures of Carson Jewelers and the clothing boutique Lena's of Hagerstown.

What's stunning is that both managed to hold on this long. It was allegiance to Hagerstown, not profits, that kept them going. They fought the good fight.

In 2006, right on the cusp of the real estate crash, it looked as if the downtown might be going somewhere. Luxury condos were promised as a replacement for Section 8 housing. Offices, restaurants and stores, along with galleries and schools, were optimistically announced.

Then it turned out that banks had been stupidly pushing mortgages on people with little to no documentable income. The ratings houses (including S&P, take note) stupidly rated the ensuing bonds as AAA quality, and insurance companies and investment houses stupidly backed these issues with what became known as credit default swaps.

By now, we know the ending, and among the casualties you can count downtown Hagerstown.

For the most part, only the projects developed by people with deep pockets or government funding sources have survived.

Carson owner Tom Newcomer neatly summed up the difficulties that add to the economic malaise: perceived security issues, parking, low-income housing, high rents and the cost of rehabbing old buildings to modern codes.

The rents will take care of themselves; oversupply and low demand are powerful market forces. Meantime, the city might consider having a meaningful discussion about codes and separate what is absolutely necessary for safety from window dressing.

As for security, parking and low-income housing, these problems, or perceived problems, naturally need to be fixed. The only other option is to foster an atmosphere conducive to people who do not overly care about issues of police presence, parking and low-cost housing.

This is anecdotal and admittedly local in scope, but I did notice a small city in central Illinois last week that appeared to be thriving, and it was easy to see why.

Tied up to a pier at the water's edge was a massive riverboat, home to one of many casinos to pop up following the legalization of gambling.

Gambling apparently had been good to the town, as its tax dollars had fueled the development of one of the most gorgeous urban hardscapes and waterfronts you would ever want to see. Parks, statuary and fountains were prevalent, as were jogging paths, bike trails and fishing piers.

But on closer inspection, something weird was going on; behind all the sandblasted brick and iron street lamps, many of the storefronts were just as empty as Hagerstown's. In fact, there seemed to be very little difference from an occupancy standpoint.

It was one local's impression that gambling paid for all the improvements, true enough, but it also sucked away every last visitor or tourist dollar that found its way into the city. People wanted to gamble, not spend money in the downtown.

The downtown was not vacant though, far from it. It had an air of vibrancy from children playing in the fountains to men and women jogging, biking and fishing. More than half, I judge, were immigrants who seemed to be making a go of what the native population couldn't.

Immigrants were also doing most of the discernible work in town, and it's not too much of a leap to think that a decade hence they will be able to afford to rent some of those empty downtown storefronts and turn them into profitable business outlets.

Just a guess, but I don't think too many of the people doing the work were real concerned about parking. Or security. And low-cost housing was probably, to them, an advantage. They had one thing on their mind — capitalism.

And this is the lesson: In America today, we have a group of people that likes to sit around and spread anger and blog and sign petitions. And we have a group of people who are working their tails off.

Who do you think wins that race?

Those who habitually build things up seldom lose to people who habitually tear things down. How ironic if the people who many feel will be the death of America are actually the ones who end up saving it.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is

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