Even though I promised lots of people that I was going to remain mostly silent about stadium issues here in Hagerstown, one trip to see the O’s play the Nats in Baltimore hooked me again. My wife says this is worse than all those times I quit smoking only to be drawn back into the habit by “just one little ol’ smoke.” (I did quit more than 30 years ago, but the temptation to start smoking remains today.)
But this column is not about smoking; rather, it’s about baseball, concerts, rallies, maybe football and soccer, certainly economic development, and revitalization. More than 40 years ago, I was trained as a counterintelligence officer at Fort Holabird, Md. Part of my training involved conducting surveillances — auto and foot — in downtown Baltimore. During that training, I got a firsthand look at lower Calvert Street west to Eutaw Street and beyond. No Inner Harbor, no Oriole Park at Camden Yards or M&T Bank Stadium. Along with some new tall buildings for businesses, the area was mostly slums, bums, hookers and dying or dead downtown communities.
The Saturday before last, on my most recent visit to the same area (for the aforementioned baseball game), we parked in a deck on Calvert Street just north of Pratt Street. As my wife and I, my grandson and his friend walked to the “yard,” we saw a thriving Inner Harbor, hosting, among others, young folks from the National High School Choir. We saw literally thousands of folks partying along the streets, in outdoor and indoor restaurants and bars, both before and after the game.
Since 1970, I’ve been to Baltimore many times and during those visits I’ve seen the renaissance in that downtown area. More new and renovated buildings, more business ventures, restaurants, commerce, banking, retail, sporting venues, arts and culture, housing, education and all sorts of growth and renovation. The area near Babe Ruth’s home is particularly reminiscent of what could be any one of a number of areas in or near downtown Hagerstown. Simply, what’s happening in some parts of Baltimore was not happening 40 years ago.
Sure, I know Hagerstown is not Baltimore. And, yes, I realize Hagerstown does not have a “water feature.” And, sure, all of the “boo birds” will be quick to point out that plans for the Inner Harbor redevelopment started in the 1960s and that it was the Inner Harbor — the water feature — that really turned around downtown Baltimore.
But isn’t it interesting to note the further explosion of development and renewal that occurred when Baltimore visionaries, 20 years ago, built a baseball stadium in their downtown. And my, my, my, didn’t a second stadium intensify and expand that explosion? Yes, I believe it did.
I’ve read a number of Mail Call items recently that call our local elected officials by every name from stupid to insensitive to corrupt. One recent item suggested that before we do anything we need to have “guarantees” that a project will be successful. I suspect that opinion letters containing the same or similar sentiments were abundant in The (Baltimore) Sun newspaper prior to the Inner Harbor, Camden Yards and M&T stadium projects becoming reality. Some folks will only focus on the “horse poop” in a barn full of ponies and not the fun their children can have on a pony ride.
There are no guarantees, not in life or in projects or programs. I, or any of our elected officials, cannot guarantee that a new multiuse facility (a stadium) in downtown Hagerstown will be successful and will turn around what is becoming a dying area. All anyone can do is look at examples and judge the potential based upon the outcomes achieved in similar situations.
I’ve seen with my own eyes and studied successful downtown stadiums in Memphis and Nashville, Tenn., and in Baltimore. The Memphis and Nashville stadiums support “minor league” baseball teams as well as other sports and concert activities. The positive economic outcome of those venues reaches far beyond the few blocks that surround the facilities.
I’m no expert on stadiums, economic development or urban renewal. I’m just an opinion writer with two eyes and a penchant for studying project outcomes. So, it is my considered opinion that we should move forward on the stadium project in downtown Hagerstown and not wait for the next flood of biblical proportions to provide us with a “water feature” to stimulate economic growth in our downtown.
Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees. He is married to County Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham.