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Is there a vision for city's downtown?

August 27, 2011|By ART CALLAHAM

Is there a vision for the City of Hagerstown's downtown? This question is being asked by many groups and individual citizens. During the last several years, the downtown has lost a number of anchors like R. Bruce Carson Jewelers, Hoffman's Clothiers, Lena's and Ingram's Men's Shop — to name a few.  Other downtown commercial and professional businesses are rumored to be looking for new "digs" in areas near the new Meritus Medical Center, along Eastern Boulevard and Dual Highway, and near the Centre at Hagerstown.

Susquehanna Bank chose to build a new headquarters on the eastern approach to the city rather than renovating and expanding downtown. Even Congressman Roscoe Bartlett moved his Washington County office out of downtown.

Of course, there have been downtown successes — the University of Maryland at Hagerstown, the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, a soon-to-be-renovated and expanded central library, a new District Court building, and the Bowman and Deming projects.

But still the question remains: Is there a vision for the downtown? If you don't like the word vision, how about plan or strategy? Whatever word you like, the answer is still probably no. As a city, we still don't know what we want to be when our downtown grows up.

Sure, there is a governmentally mandated "City Comprehensive Plan," an annual budget for the city, a capital improvement plan and any number of plans for transportation, parks, recreation, water, sewer, public safety, etc. However, since Cy Paumier's "Arts and Entertainment District Plan,"  circa the 1990s, no one who I know of has set forth a plan specific for Hagerstown's downtown.

I know that city planners, the city council, the county commissioners, the Greater Hagerstown Committee, the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation (CHIEF) and the Economic Development Commission have talked about doing things in and for the downtown. Yet, to my knowledge, there is no umbrella vision, plan or strategy.

My good friend, Ed Lough, summed it up like this: "We need to choose. Are we going to have a vibrant and successful retail/commercial downtown or are we going to have a downtown populated by dirty book stores and tattoo parlors?  Whichever, we need to choose and do one or the other well."  Of course, Ed's tongue was in his cheek; however, his point is valid. As a city, we need to decide what our downtown is going to be and set about making the downtown into what we have decided.

Several years ago, in a collaborative effort, the city, the Chamber, CHIEF and the Greater Hagerstown Committee hired Rocky Wade, a well-known urban planning consultant to look at our city and to recommend actions that would move us forward. I'll not bore you with a lot of details, only relating that Wade's major recommendation was for our city to form a "Community Development Corporation" as a means to coordinate planning and execution of community development projects.

What is a CDC? In its simplest structure, a CDC forms the we that I mentioned earlier who will help decide what our downtown should look like and then make that look happen.  As Wade explained several years ago, "up front, a CDC brings together government, financial and development folks creating a one-stop shop to plan, finance and execute projects and/or programs."

Approvals, changes, restrictions, financing, press coverage and popular support are all vetted in the beginning. No one is sent away simply because a form was incorrectly filled out.  Zoning, historic restrictions and land designation are discussed openly and early, particularly if change is necessary.  

Hagerstown, like many municipalities nationwide, is bereft of the cohesive energy needed to move a community in any direction. Baltimore's Inner Harbor was nothing but a dream until Mayor William Donald Schaefer got the government, the press, banks and builders together to develop a plan.  

Around here, when there is a good idea, it often runs afoul of developers who are leery of government and don't buy into the plan. Or, developers run afoul of restrictions, or banks and government see conflict. Many good ideas get shelved because of a lack of trust, communication and cooperation.

 

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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