Brien Poffenberger: Hagerstown brand must adapt to fit the 21st century


Talk with locals old enough to remember, and they will describe post-World War II Hagerstown as the center of the universe, using words like “crowded,” “bustling,” and “exciting.”

A trip into “The City” was a big deal. Downtown was the source of everything from hardware to table linen, and the central role Hagerstown played in everyone’s life created a shared sense of community. Even adjusting for nostalgia, they describe a healthy and vibrant economic core, the re-creation of which would boost the entire county’s economic fortunes.

To understand this shared sense of community — and what its revival could do for Washington County — it helps to understand how we got to where we are. In the latter half of the 20th century, culture, policy and the market conspired to drain the lifeblood from American cities. And Hagerstown was no different. By almost every measure, the American standard of living improved, but in the process, cities lost much of their reason-to-be.

Historically, cities developed around economic activity. Commerce drew population, which, in turn, drew more commerce. The whole process was driven by economic efficiencies, and cities became centers of gravity, drawing not only people and businesses but also energy and ideas and culture. That was certainly true in Hagerstown with its vibrant downtown of stores and showrooms, factories and machines shops, restaurants and theaters. After WWII, however, everything changed. We updated the American dream, fully embraced the automobile, and ran headlong into the information age.

Advances in technology and the shift away from manufacturing lessened the efficiencies of proximity. The upwardly mobile middle-class moved to the newly created suburbs. Retail followed, and jobs were close behind. Public policy responded to this demographic shift and built a web of infrastructure that supported the flight from downtowns. By the 1980s, urban cores across America had lost the economic activity that had once created them, and that loss depressed property values, reduced resources and drove a downward spiral that has proven difficult to reverse.

Reversing that trend in Hagerstown sometimes seems like a goal unto itself, but reviving downtown is really a means to an end. Economic centers tend to define communities, and so Hagerstown defines not only who we are but also how others see us. Viewed this way, our downtown offers an enormous opportunity. For those of us who live here, Hagerstown is the ideal canvas: an architectural showcase at a pedestrian scale with low crime and easy access to essential services. For those on the outside, Hagers-town offers us the opportunity to project the image that we want others to see. In modern marketing terms, downtown is our community “brand.”

But successful brands are shaped, managed. Community leaders — and their constituents — must realize that the forces that created Hagerstown are now pulling in different directions, and so reviving economic vitality requires equally powerful counter measures. Assets once prized in the marketplace are now considered liabilities, and a downtown built for one economic reality now has to adjust to another. To keep the city viable, decision makers must shape public policy that makes Hagerstown relevant in the 21st century.

No one is suggesting that downtown will once again be the central — and exclusive — provider of shopping and entertainment, but with all it has to offer, Hagerstown could be one of Washington County’s greatest economic and marketing assets.

One thing is for sure: We have to do something. Because if we do nothing, the same economic forces that built Hagerstown — demographic shifts, need for infrastructure, search for markets — will tear it apart.

Brien Poffenberger is president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

The Herald-Mail Articles