Art Callaham: Moving forward starts with a vision

September 15, 2011|By ART CALLAHAM

I received both positive and negative comments about my suggestion for creating a community development corporation to develop and execute a vision for Hagerstown's downtown. Other comments concerning my opinion about who should make up the membership of a CDC board are also noted.  

Over the course of several years, some interesting proposals have been made as positive visions for a revitalized downtown.  Without a lot of detail, the following is one of many visions that have been put forth. I am hopeful that you will consider this one and comment.

Expand the education footprint downtown. Over the years, the biggest objection — mostly espoused by some of our community leaders — has been the cost to taxpayers.  

However, those who support this vision of expansion see positive tax base outcomes for the downtown if more students, teachers and administrators spend more than eight hours a day downtown. Restaurants, retail and support services businesses would certainly get a boost. New workers and students with disposable income might even attract some businesses to rethink of the downtown as a place to set up or re-set up shop.

I realize there are many details to be studied and many objections to be considered — money and risk being paramount, However, given a need for a vision for the downtown, maybe this old idea needs a relook.  

The vision has many possible parts: an expanded arts school; an expanded university complex; a public safety training facility; housing for students; an education conference center; and moving the administrative office of the Board of Education downtown. Each could be the start of a synergistic outcome. Moving more education jobs into one area — like Hagerstown's downtown — could be the beginning.

Success attracts success. Perhaps residential developers might consider building or renovating existing properties for high-end apartments or condominiums. Perhaps the city would consider incentives to educators to live downtown. Perhaps an increase in the tax base downtown will spur the city to have a greater police presence downtown that would help dispel the myth that downtown is unsafe.

Perhaps builders might put more market-rate housing in and around downtown. Perhaps the city would create incentives for those increased numbers of public safety employees to live where they work — downtown.

Perhaps the city would consider free parking downtown for those who work there, live there and those who would shop or matriculate downtown. The downtown could become a virtual "mall" for education, commercial, retail, residential and professional entities. How about a supermarket downtown?

Land swaps between the public and private sectors could be used to mitigate some direct costs of revitalization. Consolidation of functions like communications, technology and administration would be easier to achieve if more of the government resided in a single area. What if all education, judicial, and city and county front offices were downtown?

Perhaps, perhaps. It all starts with a vision and the cohesive energy to make that vision become a reality.

We already have an arts school, a university complex, a theater and a soon-to-be renovated public library — all linked in some manner to education — in downtown Hagerstown. That is a formidable footprint already in place.

Next, pick a project and begin expanding the footprint. Look at education-centered towns across the nation; most are thriving urban centers. We can have one here in Hagerstown.       

The time is right. The cost of money for investment is at an all-time low, and the need for jobs is near an all-time high. Let's toss aside the mistrust among our local governments, developers, the media, business and citizens. Let's reopen those closed communications lines and collaborate as a community to move Hagerstown's downtown forward.

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

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