David Hanlin: Season brings hope for downtown's future

December 28, 2011|By DAVID HANLIN

During this holiday season, we have much to celebrate. The season represents rebirth and the promise of spring. It is a season of optimism, and with that comes my confidence that someday downtown Hagerstown will be humming. It will take a lot of hands and a lot of talk, some smart money and some political risk taking, but the result will be something of which our entire region will be proud.  

Recently, The Herald-Mail published a story about a rash of closures or relocations in downtown Hagerstown. Ten businesses have been so affected since Washington County Free Library closed its South Potomac Street location for reconstruction. It is a little-appreciated fact that the South Potomac Street branch of the library was probably the largest single economic engine for downtown Hagerstown. With dozens of employees and more than 1,000 patrons a day, many lunched or shopped downtown. When it closed, much of the spending by these people no longer took place downtown. It is doubtful that all these closures and relocations are the direct result of the library closing, but the reduction in pedestrians cannot be denied.

In recent months, the City of Hagerstown and Washington County’s Economic Development Commission issued a statement of shared recommendations for downtown. One of the objectives focuses on attracting at least one major employer to downtown. Reports have placed the target number of employees at 200. The library likely will reopen in spring 2013, and the return of the employees and as many as 1,300 patrons per day should have a stimulative effect. In many other cities, like Chicago and Seattle, new libraries have served as the stimulus for revitalization of a downtown. Studies elsewhere suggest the same will occur here. But this will not, unto itself, have the economic impact of 200 employees.

Attracting a new business with 200 employees to downtown will be extremely challenging. It is hard enough to attract a new employer to move to the county.  Likewise, getting an existing business with 200 employees to move downtown from the county will be exceedingly difficult. In my mind, there is only one employer under the immediate control of local government that could be moved, and that is the central office of the Board of Education. This has been discussed on and off for years. It is not a new idea.

If located near the Arts and Entertainment District, this would place more than 200 relatively high-paid workers downtown. The stimulative effect could be tremendous. However, I am concerned that there are too many political hurdles for this to occur in the near term. As a result, some additional options must be considered that will have the same effect.

Some might ask, “In the absence of a large employer moving downtown, what should be done?” Ideally, I would strive for a bold approach, such as building a new stadium for the Hagerstown Suns closer to downtown. But that, too, would be politically risky. In the absence of a bold approach bringing jobs here, our downtown needs to continue to attract people. I would attack this issue in three ways.

First, people need to feel safe. I believe downtown is probably the most crime-free part of the city. Promote it. How does having bail bonds businesses in the heart of downtown help promote a sense of safety?  

Empty storefronts give an impression of decay and risk. At a minimum, empty storefronts are not welcoming. The Downtown Business Alliance can help by creating a program to fill empty storefronts with art, promotions or visually stimulating materials, other than dirty windows, plywood and “For Sale” signs.

Second, people with disposable incomes need to be attracted to live downtown. “Urban pioneers” describes people who are among the first to live in changing neighborhoods. They tend to be young renters, not condo or home owners. So I would develop apartments with high amenities and market them to young adults. One high-quality apartment building filled with young adults could do as much for spending downtown as a single large employer.  

Unfortunately, residents who live in Section 8 housing have become symbols of what is wrong with downtown. Organizations providing this housing address an important societal need. However, providing these services in the heart of downtown comes at a significant economic and cultural cost.  

Third, there is tremendous economic power in entertainment. A nonprofit organization, like the Cultural District Trust in Pittsburgh, should be created to coordinate and promote entertainment. This entity would coordinate certain business functions, cross-promote cultural activities and, if necessary, maintain or upgrade facilities. The priority of this organization should be to attract people downtown and encourage spending.

Happy holidays to all. This holiday is a promise for a bright future.

David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident. His email address is

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