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County asked: Urbanomics delivered

February 03, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND

Ten or more years ago, the Washington County Commissioners paid a handsome sum for a consultant study to determine whether the county needed a fire tax. What it got for its money was a lot of redundant background and boilerplate, with no answer to the commissioners’ central question.

Under pressure, the commissioners pressed the consultant for an answer: Did Washington County need a fire tax? The consultant added a few paragraphs that essentially said, “Sure, why not?” and the county had its answer, but it didn’t matter, since the commissioners didn’t act on the consultant study anyway.

Such is the nature of consultants and local governments. So perhaps it was because the bar was set so low that the county’s latest consultant report from Urbanomics Inc. seems so — dare we say, plausible?

The report came at the behest of the county’s economic development commission, after an office shakeup that has left the board without a director for more than six months.

True, there is a strong element of “pretty much knew that already” in the report. Not enough education and a convoluted mixing bowl of business groups are affirmed as among the prime culprits in the county’s struggle to attract quality jobs.

“Raising the bar on educational attainment is critical to the economic future of the County,” the reports says. Certainly that bears repeating, but it’s not news.

The report also states in loud and clear terms some things that we all knew but avoided out of sensitivity: Hagerstown has way too much low-income housing, and we have, for some reason, remained hell-bent on packing the downtown with senior-living complexes. Seniors make great neighbors but poor shoppers, and it’s the wrong demographic for a city in need of disposable income and dependable foot traffic.

Of course, no consultant report would be complete without at least one wince-worthy sentence, and the hands-down winner here has to be: “We also are of the opinion that there is little wrong with the Hagerstown-Washington County EDC structure, except for questions raised about its effectiveness and priorities.”

That’s like saying everything about the ship is seaworthy, except for the hull.

But the bulk of the report has some real and hopefully workable suggestions. It puts pressure on the Washington and Annapolis delegations to get with the program and fund the widening of Interstate 81 to six lanes, as West Virginia and Pennsylvania are already doing.

The report pushes for commuter rail service to Hagers-town, because in its opinion there is a gulf between Washington County and corporate suburbia that is wider than the physical distance would suggest.

The report sees the University System of Maryland evolving into a four-year school (maybe with student dorms downtown). It rattles the cages of county technology, saying we need to go farther and faster with fiber; broadband will be to 21st-century communities what the railroad was a century prior — without it, you are doomed to become a stagnant backwater.

Of course, broadband is trendy right now — the report goes further, suggesting special incentives to Potomac Edison for providing cheap power to energy sponges, such as the big servers in financial and data centers.

But what might be most interesting is that this study, which presumably is a commercially and industrially inspired document, puts so much emphasis on the arts and out-of-doors. It cites the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts as an invaluable piece of the puzzle, and suggests the city double down by going after a Hagerstown campus for the Maryland School of the Arts and Design. Urbanomics stresses the importance of the Arts and Entertainment District in Hagerstown, and suggests that to protect it we finally sit down and have a nice little chat with the landlords of substandard housing and explain that it will no longer be business as usual.

The report impressively embraces grand concepts (accelerate green energy production and turn the underused Woodmont Lodge into an upscale tourist retreat) and gets down in the dirt to deal with arcane minutiae (establish a small-business revolving loan fund and come to realize that the city’s “water for annexation” scheme just isn’t working).

Rather than a cut-and-paste template for Anytown, U.S.A., Urbanomics has provided an ambitious, thoughtful and original plan for Washington County. The county asked for a blueprint, and boy did it get one. Now, the pressure falls squarely on the shoulders of our local leaders to see that this plan is acted upon, and not relegated to the same dusty shelf that is populated with all the consultant studies that have come before it.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.



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