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David Hanlin: 12 steps to revitalizing downtown Hagerstown

November 23, 2011|By DAVID HANLIN

In my last column, I started to present a blueprint for redeveloping downtown Hagerstown. The blueprint is based on a March 2005 Brookings Institution report by Christopher Leinberger titled “Turning around Downtown: Twelve Steps to Revitalization.” That column presented the six steps that must be taken by local government to create an environment conducive to revitalization of downtown.

Step 1: Capture the Vision. The Goal, Objective & Strategy Statement announced by the City and the Economic Development Commission does articulate a vision, but it does not provide enough direction to be considered a strategic plan.

Step 2: Develop a Strategic Plan. A plan should have been developed years ago. I hope the city council member who reportedly offered to take one of the city’s many strategic plans off the shelf was joking. They are on the shelf for a reason. Please do this one right.

Step 3: Forge a Healthy Private/Public Partnership. Involving the private sector in creating the strategic plan will help instill confidence in the city that a stable redevelopment environment exists and that reasonable support will be forthcoming from local government.

Step 4: Make the Right Thing Easy. Do easy things like fill every first-floor empty storefront with posters, art and promotions to create an appearance of activity and safety at the street level.

Step 5: Establish Business Improvement Districts and Other Non-Profits. The city did this when it created the Downtown Target Investment Zone.  Build upon it.

Step 6: Create a Catalytic Development Company (CDC). A public-private corporation created by governmental, business and civic interests is important to provide stability, expedited decision making and expanded access to varying sources of capital.

The city should use these first six steps to create the proper conditions for revitalization. A strategic plan does need to be developed. The city needs to work to improve the dialogue with the private sector. But, a CDC corporation has not been created. Neither CHIEF nor HNDP are charged nor have the resources to serve in this role at this time. So work remains to be done.

When these issues are fully addressed, then the next six steps, as identified by Leinberger, can be undertaken.    

Step 7: Create an Urban Entertainment District. The Arts and Entertainment District captures the character of our community, but additional investment will likely be needed. A recently created Downtown Business Alliance is a great start to provide a voice for small business, but more coordination of efforts between them and the arts community will be needed.

Step 8: Develop a Rental Housing Market. Urban pioneers tend to be young adults. Young adults provide a relatively inexpensive, durable source of pedestrian traffic and local spending capacity. Housing for these young adults should provide density and have amenities that cater to them. They want to easily get to a friend’s apartment. They want to be able to walk down the street to a restaurant or bar. Living in city redeveloped townhouses that are scattered around downtown is just not going to work with this group.  

Step 9: Pioneer an Affordability Strategy. The city already has the Central City Residency Initiative programs for college graduates, veterans, etc.   

Step 10: Focus on For-Sale Housing. Young adults do eventually start families and build careers. They eventually want homes. They want to build equity. The city and HNDP have well-developed programs to facilitate homeownership among this group.

Step 11: Develop a Local-Serving Retail Strategy. To support these residents, a retail sector should be developed that focuses on downtown residents. This retail sector will not compete directly against regional shopping centers, but will focus on the day-to-day needs of the residents and the needs of the offices that are downtown.  

Step 12: Re-create a Strong Office Market. An office market is the ultimate desire. It employs local residents, brings suburbanites downtown to work, and the employees support local retail and restaurant commercial activities. I applaud the mayor’s recent comments about bringing the offices of the Washington County Public Schools downtown. I think it is an idea whose time has come.

After examining this entire report through the lens of recent local revitalization efforts, we are on the right track in some areas and need more work in others. I believe City Hall has historically sought to control and drive revitalization rather than create the framework to guide revitalization. Both city leaders and the private sector have erred because there was no broadly accepted blueprint for moving forward and until recently, a tense relationship has existed. Let’s take stock and refocus and avoid a repeat.

If you would like a copy of the Brookings report, send me an email.

David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident. His email address is davidhanlin54@gmail.com.

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