Stars have aligned for progress in city

January 20, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND |

William and Thomas Towson, who farmed the fields along present-day Joppa and York roads, wouldn’t recognize the community that bears their name today. Towsontown was born as something of a way station for farmers driving herds of livestock and wagons of grain and vegetables south to the Port of Baltimore, and in the 250 years hence, the community of 55,000 has participated in a boom-and-bust pattern recognizable to small cities along the Eastern Seaboard, Hagerstown included.

Today, leaders in Towson hope that people who were familiar with the Towson of the 2000s won’t recognize it two or three years hence.

Towson is undergoing the type of transformation that Hagerstown is toying with at the moment. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said at a news conference this week: “We are going to make Towson a regional destination, even better than Bethesda, even better than Silver Spring.”

A 12-story tower vacant for a decade reopened in August, populated with offshoots of Towson University; Towson Commons, abandoned by retailers, finds new life as a fitness center; and high-end restaurants and theaters with VIP bar/bistro areas appear, meaning that, Kamenetz said, “dinner and a movie will soon have a whole new meaning in downtown Towson.”

The investment is somewhat staggering: It easily will top $100 million in investments, 660 construction jobs and 1,500 jobs after that, or so they say.

Of course, before we become too starry-eyed, it pays to remember that Hagerstown lacks some of Towson’s assets, including a major university and immediate proximity to the nation’s 24th largest city.

But here’s the lesson: Small cities that want to thrive cannot think of themselves in the ways that we came to think of small cities throughout the majority of the 1900s. John Josiah Newberry ain’t walking through the door anytime soon with a retailing icon that will anchor a downtown for the next five or six decades.

Three things are striking about the Sora presentation to City Hall this week, which outlined a path that might, just might, pull a moribund city out of what is well on its way to becoming a half-century funk.

One is the quality of the names involved — Sora Development; Daft, McCune and Walker Inc. engineers; Skanska construction — one hesitates to make a baseball analogy in Hagerstown, but these outfits are in the major leagues of development.

Second is the scope of the development they’re talking about. Those who were horrified at the $40 million cost of the proposed baseball stadium might just want to skip to the next paragraph, because the plans under consideration would be two, three times that — maybe more.

Third, the days when a government could finance mammoth public works projects to jumpstart a city are over. But so are the days that we could sit back and let the private markets work their magic. Those models don’t work anymore, not for a downtown.

Hagerstown has tried both, and both have failed. Public projects haven’t been enough, no matter how much money has been poured into the Social Services building, the Boublitz courthouse, the University System of Maryland campus and Barbara Ingram School for the Arts.

Private investors have fared no better. They either sit on downtown property allowing it to decay in hopes of scoring a windfall in the next up market, or they have tried to do too much, overextending their capital in a town without the foot traffic to support it.

We now see the result.

So here’s what we have, right at this very moment: Some residual momentum to build something big in the city. A public school system in desperate need of new administrative space; some green shoots of education, including USMH, the arts school and the (coming soon) new library; a sprawling green field more or less in the middle of town where the old hospital once resided; a professional baseball team in need of a professional home; a decaying, monolithic industrial building that everyone is sick of, which oh-by-the-way, sits alongside one of Western Maryland’s more historic and picturesque creeks.

Add to this a room full of players who want to see all this and more come together in a fashion that will set the standard for small-city viability as we move forward into the 21st century.

That’s a lot of stars that are unlikely to line up again in our lifetime.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is

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