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Economic report can't be allowed to gather dust

February 09, 2013

Some consultant reports deserve to sit on a shelf. But the strategic economic-development report presented to Washington County recently by Urbanomics Inc. is not one of them.

Traditional consultant reports all too often break little ground beyond telling the agency that is paying for the report what it wants to hear. A good example is the recent Ripken report, which looked at the downtown stadium issue through rose-colored glasses.

The Urbanomics report, by contrast, addressed some of our most glaring unpleasantries head-on.

The list of “competitive economic weaknesses” in the report cites the downtown’s concentration of “poverty-level residents, indigents and low-income housing,” along with vacant businesses and buildings in disrepair. It partly blames the concentration of social service agencies in the downtown as “a magnet for more needy residents,” while calling for more policing and building code enforcement.

The plan also recommended the city and Hagerstown Housing Authority work with low-income housing providers to limit and eventually reduce low-income housing downtown.

Urbanomics called economic development in this county a rudderless ship, which we suspect is the result of too many business groups and too little communication among them. This, says Urbanomics, might open the door to a public-private partnership in place of the current county agency. (Should this occur, we would ask that it be established with a degree of fiscal transparency so problems of accountability that have arisen in other quasi-public agencies might be avoided.)

And while too many consultants speak in broad generalities, Urbanomics was startlingly specific and creative. It talked of the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown as a four-year institution; of driving tours linking our small-farm producers; of revolving loan funds and comprehensive utility policy.

It correctly noted that of all communities that bill themselves as the “crossroads of the Mid-Atlantic,” Hagerstown might have the best claim, with its interstates, airport and rail service. It suggests building on these inherent strengths, while branching out into nontraditional areas (for us) such as technology.

We harbor no illusions that all of the report’s recommendations will, or should be, implemented. But it would be a breach of duty for our elected leaders to put this report on the shelf with all the others and ignore such a strong set of recommendations.

Rather, we would prefer for everyone involved to mark their calendars for six months from now, and six months after that, to gauge progress in the areas of the report that the community deems to be workable.

For the sake of the community, this is one report that cannot be allowed to gather dust.

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