Spence Perry: Some glimmers of hope in downtown Hagerstown

April 18, 2012|By SPENCE PERRY

It has been a troubling period for this columnist. Every person even marginally in public life in Washington County has a solution for the growing abyss that is becoming “downtown.”

There are those with working drawings, those with bond issues, those with a political agenda and those who helped create the present desert by removing their businesses, and the institutions that have normally made up downtown’s past (hospitals, YMCAs, government offices) who also now have solutions to offer. The fastest-growing industries in the heart of our fair city at present are high-interest loan stores and bail-bond operators.

Alas, I had to look on in my silent search for a solution. However, a recent untroubled spring day brought me — and possibly all of us — HOPE.

On a Saturday two weeks ago, I brought some guests downtown for lunch. As we walked down the first block of South Potomac Street, it came to me that this one block still functions in a downtown atmosphere.

On the far southeast corner was an elegant and long-respected German restaurant. In the middle of the southside block, there stood an office complex with a greatly improved facade and flourishing restaurant. The new restaurant just to the north was recently closed, but its elegant space remains intact for future use.

On beyond, as you approach the Public Square, there are several empty but well laid- out shops that could quickly be put to use when times improve, and Carson’s Jewelers, one of our most storried retail locations, stand ready to reopen on the economy’s rise.

Also on this side, an elaborate and well-kept religious complex projects a dignified facade.

Across the street, the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts adjoins The Maryland Theatre which in recent years has become much more open in its presentations. These two vibrant venues hold the dreams, the laughter and the drama of the city in their walls.

After that, you pass more retail to the corner, including a newly opened restaurant. This downtown block works! What makes it so different from all the others?

All of this — with the exception of the public arts school — was done almost entirely on private sponsorship.

These buildings are seeing the private interests, needs and wants of customers under their own direction and choice.

There is no imposed uniformity of style here, rather, happy chaos rules. The phrase “arts and entertainment district” is emblazoned on plaques, and street pavements and the tax code, but it does not impose on the sense of the place or what people experience while there.

The block is reasonably priced, feels safe and welcoming. There is even warmth to it. You would go back again for all of it, food, entertainment, street scenes, simply for fun of “being on the town.”

I must note there is some overt governmental support, parking facilities, the unremarkable infrastructure, and some nice street improvements, but it is supportive rather than directive.

Not all of the reality at street level is real. As you rise to upper heights — the upper floors of most of the buildings on this block are vacant or largely so. There are occasional homeless on the sidewalk and sometimes folks that just reflect life today. For a lot of us, that is hard.

But, on balance, the first block of South Potomac Street downtown functions well. This block, what has created it, what keeps it going and what will help it push on to the future is in these stores. This place, these people.

We need to pay close attention to what goes on here. We must protect the progress from needless intervention, overprotection of stultifying rules, regulations on imposed tastes, (no more studies on what already seems to work).

We might find that in time we can multiply the South Potomac expense by 100 and downtown Hagerstown, the problem, will have become an opportunity.

We’ve dreamed and tried a lot of other solutions but for now, in this time and in this place, this one seems to work.

Spence Perry, a Fulton County, Pa., resident, is active in Washington County affairs.

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