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Report: 'Downtown has shortcomings, but is far from run-down and inhospitable'

'I think people are beginning to realize that as goes Hagerstown, so goes Washington County'

February 17, 2013|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com
  • In an Economic Development Strategic Plan unveiled last month, Consultant Kenneth Creveling said the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown could one day be expanded to a four-year university, or the downtown could become home to a post-secondary school for arts and design to complement the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts.
Herald-Mail file photo

Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series of stories on findings and recommendations in the Hagerstown and Washington County Economic Development Strategic Plan.

Poverty, low-income housing and vacant properties in downtown Hagerstown are not helping redevelopment efforts, according to information in an economic development strategic plan.

“A run-down, unkempt downtown is not the key to success,” consultant Kenneth Creveling said last month when an Economic Development Strategic Plan for Hagerstown and Washington County was unveiled.

The report was compiled by Creveling’s Florida-based Urbanomics Inc. and the North Carolina firm Leak-Goforth Co. for the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission, the Economic Development Strategic Planning Task Force and the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation Inc., known as CHIEF.

The report discusses the importance of a county’s central city to the overall economic development picture.

“I think people are beginning to realize that as goes Hagerstown, so goes Washington County,” Mayor David S. Gysberts said after the Jan. 26 presentation. “Our economic growth and development is really vital to Washington County’s economic growth and development.”

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“The character and vitality of the downtown area of the central city in a county or metro region are important quality-of-life factors in marketing the area to new businesses and industry, and are particularly critical in attracting high-wage, knowledge-based firms and professionals,” the study points out.

“The look and feel of downtown and cultural and entertainment amenities offered in downtown are reflections of the self-image of the broader community,” according to the report. “A run-down look and attitudes that downtown is unsafe, not user-friendly, and/or lacking in things to do present clear indications to business and leisure visitors that the whole community or area may suffer from less visible problems and general malaise.”

The report goes on to say that although downtown Hagerstown has “its share of economic, physical and social problems, as older cities do,” the city “retains much of the rich architectural heritage and urban character and flavor present in its heyday. Downtown has shortcomings, but is far from run-down and inhospitable.”

“Heavy concentrations of poverty-level residents, indigents and low-income housing have developed in downtown Hagerstown in recent decades,” the report says. “As a result, many properties have fallen into disrepair ... numerous retail stores and offices have closed, vacancies have risen, the tax base has been eroded, and the downtown is generally perceived to have safety issues that need to be addressed.” 

The housing issue

“Public and assisted housing providers ... have promoted this concentration and downtown has become populated by social service agencies  and organizations on which needy populations depend,” the report states.

Addressing “poverty and the centralization of low-income housing is a must-do in my opinion,” Gysberts said. “I’m very interested in having what I’d call a housing summit and bringing all the players together.”

The mayor said the city could work with agencies that provide social services and housing to mitigate the centralization of the two in the downtown.

“Social services can be an asset, but it can also be a huge weakness or a liability,” Gysberts said. “That can be a double-edged sword because we then attract people who need those services in large numbers to the downtown.”

The citywide poverty rate is 20 percent, and is higher in the downtown, Gysberts said.

“Unless we tackle those demographic challenges, it’s going to be hard to create the type of economic growth we’re talking about,” Gysberts said.

The presence of low-income people and social services downtown is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg discussion. Did people come downtown because of the social service agencies or did the social service agencies set up shop downtown to serve its low-income residents?

“Once upon a time, there was probably a need because a lot of the people we help live in the downtown,” said Dave Jordan, executive director of the Washington County Community Action Council on Summit Avenue. “We still need to be relatively close to downtown because of the proximity of the other agencies, such as the Department of Social Services.”

People with low incomes often have transportation issues and often have to use public transportation or walk to get to the agencies, Jordan said. It makes more sense to have the agencies within a short distance of each other, and there is more County Commuter access to the downtown than in other parts of the county, he said.

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