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Cooperation will lead to the health and vitality of downtown Hagerstown

November 05, 2011|By KATE S. ALEXANDER | kate.alexander@herald-mail.com
  • USM-H and other business developed properties in Hagerstown's downtown.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

The health and vitality of downtown Hagerstown is a core responsibility of the city, but officials said the city cannot increase foot traffic, attract business or improve housing in the city's center without cooperation from others.

"We can't make decisions in a vacuum," Councilman Forrest W. Easton said. "I'm a huge fan of partnerships. We can't do it on our own. If there are not partnerships, we can't do any of it."

Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II concurred.

"We are not an island," Bruchey said. "People need to understand if we are a community and we are going to succeed as a community, we have to act like a community."

"The key here is finding the right chemistry among the actors," Councilman Martin Brubaker said.

Council members and Bruchey have listed as potential partners the Washington County Board of Education, the Greater Hagerstown Committee, the Board of County Commissioners, The Maryland Theatre, the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown, the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission (EDC), the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce and Meritus Medical Center, as well as residents, business owners and developers.

Downtown Hagerstown has become a complex situation, with city staff blaming a mix of withdrawn investment and lack of support for empty storefronts and buildings, a concentration of low-income residents and the deterioration of the public's perception of downtown.

Despite the staff assessment, Bruchey said a clear picture of downtown has yet to be painted for him, in large part because there are so many different reasons for the current problems.

If there were a clear picture, perhaps there would be a clear solution, he said.

The "many, many" reasons why Hagerstown's downtown is struggling includes a history of distrust and insufficient communication within the community, Easton said.

Trying to place blame for the deterioration of downtown does not aid in its revitalization, Brubaker said.

"Assigning blame is looking at it the wrong way," he said. "We need to move forward, not blame."

There is no silver bullet when it comes to downtown revitalization, Brubaker said.

The city recently has undertaken downtown economic development projects such as the old CVS building and 36-40 N. Potomac St., where it seeks to stimulate revitalization through a business incubator, artists housing and a gallery.

Brubaker said he has been hesitant for the city to take ownership and begin renovations of downtown properties, even with federal aid that was available for both the CVS and North Potomac Street projects.

"But faced with the choice of doing something or nothing ... it's a way of bringing outside money into the city," he said. "I think this is one tool in the kit-bag that we have."  

For the past few decades, downtown revitalization has been a campaign platform of nearly every elected city representative, Easton said.


Partners and plans

Partnerships also have been included in the city's economic-development box.

Citing projects such as Bulls and Bears restaurant, University System of Maryland at Hagerstown, the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts and the Washington County Free Library, Bruchey noted that each was done through partnerships with either private developers, governments or community organizations.

He said he has been asked numerous times if the city has a "plan" for downtown.

The city has multiple plans — the comprehensive plan, the A&E (Arts and Entertainment) District plan and the strategic plan — each of which includes the downtown, he said.

Easton said although he is a council member, he had never seen some of those plans and did not know they existed.

Despite the strategies Bruchey said are in place, Easton said he feels many of the recent accomplishments for downtown are more "hot spots" of success than the result of a city plan.

As the city moves forward with a new resolve for revitalizing downtown, Easton said a new or updated plan is key for at least having a way to measure successes.

On Oct. 25, city staff presented the council with what it called "The City Center Plan & Strategic Directions."

How the city will achieve that plan's objectives was not detailed.

The drafting of the "hows" should not involve just the city, but the work should be done in partnership with others, Easton said.

"I believe it needs to be a group of people, the council as a part of it, but a larger group," he said.

Bruchey said he would like to open the discussion to the public with a meeting, held somewhere other than at city hall, where anyone — developer, resident, business owner — can have their say.

"I would not be against an ad hoc group," Brubaker said, adding he would be comfortable allowing an informal group to address the issue and add its ideas to what the city has laid out.

Bringing everyone to the table, developing a chemistry and establishing actions is, for now, in the city's hands, officials said.

"I honestly think the ball is in the city council's court," Easton said.

Brubaker agreed.

"The ball should be in the city's court," he said. "In the long run, the council needs to find a way to provide leadership."

As mayor, Bruchey said he see it as his responsibility to keep economic development moving ahead and to push the city's department heads, with the help of the council, in the right directions.

"The mayor's responsibility is to be able to sell his city at every turn," he said.



Community involvement

Reviving downtown will take more than just the city of Hagerstown.

"It's not a process that just a government can do," said James F. Kercheval, executive director of the Greater Hagerstown Committee. "The whole community needs to be involved."

Timothy R. Troxell, executive director of the EDC, said his organization soon will take a list of objectives, shared with the city of Hagerstown, to the Washington County Board of Commissioners for approval. The city council approved the objectives in September.

Once the objectives are approved, Troxell said, officials can dig into "how" the city will work with the EDC to meet the objectives.

Those objectives include working to:

  • Encourage and foster the renovation and redevelopment of the city center properties.
  • Attract major, anchor employers to the city center.
  • Support entrepreneurial and small business development in the city center.
  • Develop a long-range strategic plan to implement strategies to diminish major obstacles to economic development.
But Troxell agreed with council members that the city must take the reins.

"I know the EDC board wants to be supportive of the city, but not take the lead," he said. "They (the city) need to drive the bus."

Both Troxell and Kercheval said their organizations have and will continue to partner with the city as it seeks to improve downtown.

To create a vibrant downtown, or the core of the apple as Troxell called it, the community must come together in partnership, and as Kercheval said, be patient.

Private-public-partnerships take time to achieve results, he said.

"It's a marathon, not a sprint," Kercheval said. "But I think we are all up for a good run."

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