Art Callaham: Downtown won't move forward without a plan

January 13, 2013|By ART CALLAHAM

Before I get too far into the year, I need to tie up a couple of loose ends. First, in my New Year’s wish list column published Dec. 30, I neglected to make the column fair and balanced. I listed too many Republican wishes and not enough from Democrats.

Del. John Donoghue wished the following, which I found very profound: “Everyone needs someplace to live, somewhere to work and someone to love. For those of us with all three, let us help those who do not.” It was my mistake for overlooking his wish, and I want to correct that mistake. Thanks, John.

Speaking of a need to do something ...

Although I understand the new mayor’s inclination to take his time in developing a plan for Hagerstown’s downtown, I believe 100 days is far too long. If you don’t like the stadium plan, then modify it, add to it or take away from it. Like we said in the military, “Move, shoot or get out of the way.” Far too much governmental time and energy (and money) has been expended on downtown revitalization, and we have little to show for it.

A lot has been written and said about a new stadium, and some has been written and said about moving the Board of Education’s administrative offices downtown. However, as I (and others) have written, there is “way more.”

How about the grand old lady of South Potomac Street — The Maryland Theatre? Long before Jack Garrett  (God rest his soul) passed away, city fathers talked mightily about renovating that jewel in our cultural and societal crown.

Today, The Maryland Theatre is a living classroom supporting the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts. Maybe there’s a partnership there. Maybe, if the school owned the theater, then it could be eligible for school system funds to renovate or expand. Hey, just a thought.  Maybe talk could turn into action.

The University System of Maryland at Hagerstown could expand with more classrooms and maybe some dormitories. Or, how about the Alexander House being restored as a grand hotel or as a conference center in support of the university? Maybe these education projects could be combined. Maybe not.

Perhaps a privately owned stadium or a county-owned stadium could be combined with other city and/or state projects. At Florida State University, the football stadium houses administrative offices beneath the stadium’s grandstands. This is not a new idea. Look at Camden Yards and the dual use of office space/stadium in the old railroad yard.

A prominent Baltimore-based developer came to Hagerstown several years ago and looked at our city’s situation in terms of revitalization.  His conclusion was that we have the potential for major redevelopment in part because of our air, road and rail transportation networks, low land costs, historical and retail significance, and grand architecture. In simple terms, it is easy to get in and out of here, land is cheap, we’ve got nearby destinations and our place is pretty.

Tying all of that together, the developer concluded that with an available labor force, growing post-secondary educational opportunities, and state, county and city elected officials who are at least civil with one another (I hope that that is still true), it could be time for a master development plan.

I’m talking about a plan that looks out, say, 30 years (I’ll be 94 years old by then). I know we can’t do everything I’ve outlined here. I also know there are 10 or 15 other issues, like parking or retail and commercial space, that need to be addressed. But maybe in 30 years, by following a detailed yet flexible development plan, we can have a revitalized and vibrant community.

We have such potential here in our community; and there is no shortage of ideas and vision. I’m not knocking our community and its leaders, because many great things have already occurred in terms of revitalization and redevelopment. However, there are now and always will be more to do.

The first step in starting anything is having a plan. I know some of the ideas I have mentioned in this column and in other columns are already on the drawing board. Wouldn’t it be nice if those projects were vetted against a master plan? What is it the carpenter says: “First, measure twice; then, cut once?” Maybe, as a community, we need to first, plan; then, proceed.

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

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