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David Hanlin: Downtown is right place for BOE central offices

February 20, 2013|By DAVID HANLIN

“And the reactions begin” read the headline in Thursday’s Herald-Mail. Two stories under the headline discussed reaction to the study by Greater Hagerstown Committee about moving the central offices of Washington County Public Schools to downtown Hagerstown.

The study undertaken at the request of the City of Hagerstown examined a number of locations. The process whittled the number of possible sites to four, all of which were examined in detail. All are in the economic development zone commonly referred to as the Arts & Entertainment District. The task force encouraged the city to consider use of some form of public-private partnership (P3) to build the facility. 

Though not a member of the Greater Hagerstown Committee, I was invited to serve on the task force. I wholeheartedly endorse the work and conclusions of the task force. I go one step further and recommend the corner of West Antietam and South Potomac streets to be the site with the best long-term benefits for the city and the Board of Education. 

The central offices should be in the Arts & Entertainment District. Councilman Kristin Aleshire’s assertion that one of the keys to downtown should be expansion of educational institutions and opportunities has real merit. While one might be left with the impression that Aleshire would like to substitute education for entertainment, I believe that, if pressed, he would acknowledge there is room for both. Maybe we should begin to refer to it as the Arts, Entertainment & Education District (AE&E). It is a natural extension of what is already working in downtown. 

The recently released Strategic Plan for Economic Development supports Aleshire on this issue. It reads “Secure a commitment from Washington County Public Schools to relocate their administrative facilities to downtown Hagerstown.” This strategic plan also recommended to “Investigate the feasibility of establishing a Maryland School of Arts and Design in downtown Hagerstown,” which further reinforces the notion that education is fundamental to the future of downtown.

Putting together a proposal to the Board of Education to move the central offices downtown will not be easy. The ultimate project will be quite expensive. Reportedly, the Board of Education has the opportunity to purchase the former Allegheny Energy building off Downsville Pike. Buying this property and remodeling the building will cost less than a new building downtown. However, the result will be lost annual real estate tax revenue of nearly $60,000, and more importantly, a lost opportunity to encourage redevelopment of downtown.   

Part of any proposal will require parking for the central offices.  A consensus seems to be emerging to build the new parking deck that has long been included in the city’s Capital Improvement Plan. This deck would support parking needs not only of the school system, but also serve the parking needs of activities in the AE&E District. If placed next to District Court, it would nicely support expanded classrooms and even dormitory space for USMH students and perhaps interns from Meritus or Volvo.

The process of putting together a specific proposal for the Board of Education to consider has to happen quickly. There is no time to study the project ad nauseum. This must come together in weeks, not months. Fortunately, between the Greater Hagerstown task force, the City of Hagerstown, the public school system and work done on the proposed stadium, there is a great deal of information already prepared that will support this effort. 

Understandably, the Board of Education might have reservations about being viewed as the catalyst for downtown revitalization. Also, there are legitimate reasons why the Board of Education might prefer the Allegheny Energy site.  Relocating the central offices might not be a magic bullet. But adding nearly 200 people per day from the central offices to the projected total of 1,400 people per day using the new library, their concerns are more likely to be resolved.  Continued adherence to urban revitalization principles of density, walkability and synergy further increase the prospects of success. 

The public investment needed will not be insignificant. A new parking facility will cost several million dollars. A P3 approach will lessen the amount but not eliminate public investment in the office building. However, as the Ripken report clearly illustrated, a strategically targeted investment can stimulate currently depressed values of commercial real estate. In fact, that report demonstrated that real estate assessments of commercial property can be stimulated so as to generate enough tax revenue that a positive rate of return will be generated on the public investment. 

This will take trust and cooperation between the private sector, City Council, the County Commissioners and the Board of Education. But it can happen. Let’s do this.

David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident. His email address is davidhanlin54@gmail.com.

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