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City leaders must develop strategy soon

February 11, 2013

Having its roots in baseball lore, the phrase “deja vu all over again” is an appropriate label for the City of Hagerstown’s current predicament as it attempts to move forward with a coherent plan for downtown renewal.

After spending a year’s worth of blood, sweat and tears on a downtown stadium site that is apparently now dead and buried, the city council seems ready to return to the Ripken Design consulting team to seek opinions on two other potential sites for a minor league baseball stadium.

The two sites in question include the current Municipal Stadium location and the vacant hilltop that once was occupied by Washington County Hospital. Both of these are deemed more politically popular, although they present problems of their own.

The current stadium location is prone to flooding, and it’s difficult to think this can be solved with a cheap fix. The hospital site certainly is situated on higher ground, but it’s not, technically speaking, downtown. The value of the downtown site is that it would theoretically be the first of a number of developmental dominoes to fall into place. But without the stadium as a keystone, few of the other projects — the school board, for one — seem keen on being the first swimmer into the pool.

We would have no quarrel with bringing Ripken Design back into the picture, if it can add some clarity. It might, for example, explain why the current stadium is unfit, if indeed this is the case. But with so many projects and potential projects hanging in the balance, we would argue strongly against becoming bogged down in any more prolonged studies or debates.

We would also ask the city council to come up with an overall strategy, and to do it quickly. Any delay now means the stadium will be lost, and baseball with it. Nor does it appear the school board will put its plans for a new administrative office on hold for long, while the city sorts out the details. If these two projects go by the boards, urban renewal architect Sora Development might very well do the same. If Sora gives up, state funding for major development likely dries up as well.

So the importance of acting, and acting now, should be clear.

Yes, the situation is complex. Along with the above-stated proposals, the city hopes to develop an education-based urban core, revitalize the East End, tear down the old MELP plant and fashion an attractive riverscape along Antietam Creek.

But before any part of this can happen, the city needs to lay out a cohesive and comprehensive plan that takes into consideration all plans and all points of view from all interested parties, and boils them down into something workable. It’s a situation that calls for leadership, and we sincerely hope that the current mayor and council are up to the job.

If the council takes a leadership role, and takes it now, Hagers-town might be on the brink of something great. But if, at this critical juncture, the council bogs down into chronic indecision, foot dragging and the picking of nits, it will be forevermore remembered as the council that saw a fat pitch down the middle of the plate and failed to get the bat off its shoulder.

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