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Hagerstown officials looking at incentives for BOE sites

February 13, 2013|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com
  • Lots at 32-44 E. Washington Street make up the "A" site recommendation.
By Ric Dugan, Staff Photographer

City officials said Wednesday that they will look into providing a package of incentives for a potential pitch to the Washington County Board of Education to entice the relocation of the schools’ administrative offices to downtown Hagerstown.

As outlined in a study compiled by a Greater Hagerstown Committee task force on potential downtown sites, city incentives could include any absorption of costs associated with land acquisition or demolition as well as concessions to provide employee parking, possibly to include an additional parking deck built nearby.

“I don’t see any other way of going about it,” Mayor David S. Gysberts said Wednesday.

City Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire took it one step further, saying the city should also look into streamlining the process or waiving fees for planning, permitting and inspections, plus consider easing up on utility rates or connection fees.

“Those are two areas where we can add increased incentive to the larger items of land acquisition, demolition and parking availability,” he said.

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Gysberts agreed that all five are areas that need to be explored as the city develops a formal relocation pitch for the school board.

In any proposal, Aleshire said he thinks the city should determine the “maximum benefit” it could provide in those five areas and consider a partnership to make the project — a “logical next step” for the city’s core — happen.

“I think this is a big enough project and an important enough project to the public that you do make that effort,” he said.

The school board decided in January not to renovate its aging facility on Commonwealth Avenue, leaving the options of either finding a new site or rebuilding on the current site, a school board member confirmed Wednesday.

“The downtown option, I think, gives them the best alternative for new construction because I don’t think anybody is talking about rehabbing an old building to put in the Board of Education,” Gysberts said.

The task force study presented to city officials Tuesday assumed new construction of the schools’ administrative offices and presented four “preferred” locations as the best sites for downtown redevelopment.

When looking at parking, a top concern for BOE officials, Aleshire said publicly-financed parking decks are an integral for a vibrant downtown in any city, noting the success seen in Frederick, Md., which he said is currently in the process of building its sixth deck.

County schools’ employees currently have free parking at the Commonwealth Avenue site.

Should the school board choose to move downtown, a new parking deck or developing additional surface parking are possibilities for accommodating the roughly 160 to 200 employees that regularly work out of the central offices, according to the study.

Aleshire said the overall goal of municipal government is to provide adequate public services and infrastructure.

“That includes parking availability in your urban core for the advancement of economic opportunity. It just does,” he said. “I think that there are many, many examples of that type of success occurring ... in many successful cities that we can make that comparison to.

“You cannot expect to energize economic investment in half-a-million square feet of vacant space downtown if you are not showing some public investment in those infrastructure-related projects, such as parking decks,” Aleshire said.

The BOE’s relocation to downtown would not be a property tax revenue generator for the city, Gysberts said, rather it is a step in the direction of redeveloping an otherwise blighted section of the downtown with an eye toward future economic revitalization.

But relocating to the city could serve to save some county tax dollars, according to Gysberts, who noted an alternative BOE site that’s been discussed in the Allegany Technology Park on Downsville Pike just south of the Interstate 70 interchange.

Gysberts said the whole purpose of building the interchange onto I-70 there was to create the incentive for technology businesses to locate there. If the BOE plants its offices there, it would take that area off the tax rolls and clog up acres of land that could have been used by private business, he said.

“I think the city understands we’re not going to make any money off property taxes from the Board of Ed, and neither would the county if they located out (on Downsville Pike),” Gysberts said. “I think it’s an opportunity cost if they were to locate at the technology park because of the missed opportunities for economic growth ... to create jobs there.”

Additionally, Gysberts pointed out the One Maryland Broadband network of fiber optic cable that is currently being installed in various areas of the county. A portion of which will run through the city’s downtown and connect to anchors such as governmental offices and Hagerstown Community College.

It would be a marginal cost for the schools’ offices to tap into the fiber optic technology downtown as compared to the Downsville Pike location several miles south, he said.

City officials will meet with the school board on Tuesday, at 2 p.m., at the central offices on Commonwealth Avenue.

Gysberts said that meeting will likely serve as a forum to go over what the city has to offer, and then answer any questions or concerns that the school board may have.

“I just see nothing but pluses for relocating the Board of Ed downtown,” Gysberts said. “I’m really looking forward to that meeting with them.”

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