Art Callaham: What is Plan B?

December 16, 2012|By ART CALLAHAM

This column is not about a new stadium or moving the Board of Education to downtown Hagerstown. It’s about what we can do if those plans don’t come to fruition — you know, a “Plan B.” 

I read with some interest a comment from a 19th-century Episcopal priest, the Rev. Charles Kingsley, speaking about life in England during the early Victorian era. Kings-ley said: “the moral state of a city depends … on the physical state of that city: on the food, water, air, and lodging of its inhabitants.”

Kingsley was a moralist, and this quote, for him, had more to do with crime prevention than urban revitalization. However, if you remove the word “moral” from his quote and focus on the physical state (including in your thoughts vacant or crumbling buildings, overgrown and trashy alleys, and subsidized housing — and not just food, water and air), you get a picture of a city’s well-being related directly to the condition of its physical infrastructure. That thought caught my attention.

So, to paraphrase, a city’s state of existence depends on the physical state of the city. Let’s face a fact: In spite of redevelopment efforts by Bowman, Laughlin, McCleary, Deming, Bryan, Sekula, Crampton, Barr and other private investors — along with city, county, state and even some federal investments — the core of downtown Hagerstown is not in a very good physical state, much less in a good fiscal state.

In downtown Hagerstown, the architecture is great, but the occupancy is not. Commerce is leaving and more vacancies are coming. Market-rate housing is limited and subsidized housing is full. Just like an apple, Hagerstown might be rotting from the center out.

My friends ask me, when I’m whining, “Art, what do you want?” Just a little vision, a simple plan, a little leadership — that’s all I want. If we don’t build a stadium or a large office building, then what?

Pleeeeeease, no more parking decks until you tell us who’s going to park in them; no more streetscapes until you tell us who’s going to look at them; no more trees and bird poop; and for heaven’s sake, don’t bring back the bollards.

So, if you don’t kill me with bird poop, new trees, parking decks and bollards, what’s left? Plenty. Let me just provide my short list of possible centerpieces for redevelopment: Alexander House (luxury hotel); Discovery Station or a renovated and expanded Maryland Theatre (downtown destinations); USMH dormitories (an expanded educational experience); free parking in the downtown core (many small towns have done this to incentivize retail, just like the malls); take a block, any block and put in market-rate housing (subsidize that type of housing instead of third-rate apartments); and clean up the alleys for their intended use (as thoroughfares for commerce and get the commercial traffic off the main streets). I could go on.

None of this will occur without a vision and the leadership to make it happen. We just had a city election. I presume that we can believe re-elected Councilmen Metzner and Brubaker still believe that a possible solution for revitalization of the downtown is a stadium. I agree with them. But, if not a stadium, then what? 

I ask Councilwoman Nigh and my good friend, former state Sen. Don Munson: What are your plans to redevelop/revitalize/renew/or whatever downtown? Of course, “I have no plan” is a suitable answer. However, being critical of another’s plan without an alternative is bad practice.

And Mayor Gysberts and Councilman Aleshire, your plans are welcome, and please don’t denigrate your plan by using the word “but” — such as, “I support a stadium, but …” We’re all interested in what you will support and not your “but.”

Each of you — Nigh, Munson, Gysberts and Aleshire — should take your time and give your answer some thought. The question is simple: “If not a stadium or a major administration building, then what is your plan to improve Hagerstown’s downtown?” Or as I have said, you may certainly answer: “I have no plan.” Take solace in the fact that the last City Council took almost three years to answer that a stadium was a viable plan for downtown redevelopment. Earlier councils didn’t seem to have a clue. I hope you won’t take as long to answer.

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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