Along Fifth Avenue in Huntington, W.Va., there's a little drive-in eatery that flourishes despite being situated in a most unappetizing location.
On one side is a four-lane, one-way thoroughfare. On the other three, it's surrounded by the pipes, stacks and, until processes changed, the sulfuric stench of a chemical plant.
Painted bright orange (maybe to stand out from the plant) and mostly open to the elements (until closing time, when shutters are pulled down to the counter), it depends on an ever-changing team of college-age waiters to sprint from car to car, delivering items from its limited menu — the mainstays of which are hot dogs with a distinctive chili sauce, and thick, rich root beer served in heavy glass mugs.
There's really no good reason for people to flock to this garish little corner of town.
For nearly 80 years now, this quirky drive-in has consistently served up the best dogs and suds around. Once you've tasted a Stewart's hot dog, no trip to Huntington is complete without one.
And there's a lesson there for anyone who cares to pay attention.
Hagerstown's once vibrant downtown has struggled to maintain its commercial core for longer than some of us can remember. It's taken more hits lately as some longtime businesses have moved or diminished their downtown presence. Attempts to revive interest in downtown's viability are frequently met with scorn, and that's not surprising. Many of us lost track a long time ago of how many committees, consultants and contrivances have been deployed to jumpstart downtown development, with varying results. Add to that perceptions about safety or parking or just the availability of goods and services, and it's easy to see why so many are skeptical. But that's only part of the story.
Because businesses that do operate downtown are usually small, with one owner or limited partners, many closures have had little to do with the business climate downtown and everything to do with events in the personal lives of their owners. Medical issues, divorce or the desire to just retire have been responsible for shutting down a string of otherwise successful enterprises. In some cases, owners who came to Hagerstown from other areas where local governments had more resources for business incentives had unreasonable expectations of the city government and decided to leave when those expectations weren't met.
But it's also true that some businesses — good businesses — left because of problems with loiterers or unresponsive landlords or both. And there's just no way to pretty that up. In fact, whenever that's happened, it's become fodder for the naysayers who like to dismiss any effort at progress as a futile attempt to fix an area that in their small minds should "just be razed."
Such myopic attitudes, however, not only are not helpful, but are a slap at the solid investments that have been made downtown. And they completely ignore encouraging signs that shouldn't be overlooked.
Shortly after a downtown bike race this summer, a pal who's not a bike racer remarked to me how impressed he was with the event, and with the number of people it brought downtown. Likewise, the Alsatia Club's recent "Thunder in the Square" car show was a huge success. The Maryland International Film Festival also had an impressive debut this month.
In short, if people have a reason to come downtown, they'll come — regardless of what their otherwise negative perceptions might be.
And like the proprietors of that little hot dog stand in the middle of the chemical plant, the businesses that have been successful downtown know this; and they've provided products or services that chains and big-box stores just don't.
So maybe some of us need to tweak our focus a little. There's been an awful lot of discussion about why people don't come downtown, and clearly that's an aspect that needed to be explored. But it makes more sense in the long run to shift more of our attention to why people DO come downtown, and build on that. Sometimes we're so obsessed with what's wrong with downtown we can't see what's right. And we don't give enough credit to the city and to downtown developers for what they've accomplished in spite of the rest of us.
That point was driven home to me when an artist friend who lives abroad was back in town for a visit last month. Neither of us really wanted to go to a chain restaurant for lunch, and she asked whether there were a café somewhere. I knew just the place.
We went downtown and had some terrific seafood. I pointed out the University of Maryland center and the new library project, and she fairly drooled over the new arts school. She was amazed at how much downtown Hagerstown had developed since she left.
Oh to see ourselves as others see us.
It might seem trite to suggest — again — that downtown Hagerstown still has a lot of potential, but it seems to me there are some markets there that are ripe for development. Hundreds already work in government or private offices downtown. The university center and the arts school are bringing in hundreds more — students who weren't downtown before. They need art supplies. And pens and notebooks. Theater equipment and musical instruments. Computers and gadgets. Lots and lots of gadgets.
And that's just for starters.
So when you bring the kids in for the Mummers Parade this weekend, remember this: People will come downtown in droves when we give them a reason to come.
Tamela Baker is a former Herald-Mail reporter and editor.