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EDC recommends smaller entertainment district foot print to achieve 'critical mass'

March 02, 2013|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com
  • The Maryland Theatre at left and the Barbara Ingram School For The Arts at right.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

Hagerstown has an Arts and Entertainment District featuring the Maryland Symphony Orchestra, The Maryland Theatre, Washington County Arts Council, Washington County Free Library and the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts and other assets, but an economic development strategic plan for the county said the entertainment district’s footprint needs to be smaller to achieve “critical mass.”

The report, prepared by the consulting firms Urbanomics Inc. and Leak-Goforth Co. LLC for the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission, the Economic Development Strategic Planning Task Force and the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation Inc. (CHIEF), suggests “a more compact priority development and investment area within the existing mapped downtown Arts and Entertainment District.”

“The large size of the existing designated area may work against concentrating the new investment and development needed to generate a critical mass of closely-knit business and visitor activity in the Center City,” the report said in its section on strengthening the downtown.

The existing district extends from Jonathan Street on the east to Mulberry Street on the west, north past Randolph Avenue and south past Baltimore Street to Berger Alley, according to a map on the city’s website.

However, Mayor David S. Gysberts said he believes the district could be expanded — in a way.

“We could create another ‘bubble’ of an Arts and Entertainment District in City Park,” Gysberts said.

The park is the home of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Peter Buys Band Shell, Hager House and other cultural, historical and entertainment attractions, Gysberts said.

The strategic plan suggests that a smaller district would put theaters, galleries, restaurants and related businesses within easier walking distance of each other. The report does not give specifics on how or where the district should be reduced.

The strategic plan also suggested looking into the feasibility of establishing a “Maryland School of Arts and Design” to build on the presence of the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, as well as The Maryland Theatre. It is an idea backed by Gysberts.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get the Maryland Institute College of Art to relocate to Hagerstown, or open up a western campus,” Gysberts said of the school in Baltimore.

Gysberts said he envisions an urban campus similar to the Savannah College of Art and Design, spread about the downtown rather than in one central location.

“First, it would complement the four-year higher education opportunity we have with the University System of Maryland” Hagerstown campus, Gysberts said.

Secondly, he said, it would allow Barbara Ingram students to continue their arts studies here.

“Another obvious advantage is feet on the street,” with people working, studying and living downtown, Gysberts said.

A 2012 study by the Sage Policy Group Inc. entitled “Developing an Arts, Entertainment and Education Cluster in Washington County, Maryland” concluded that few communities of similar size “enjoy the concentration of cultural infrastructure that can be found in Washington County.” Much of that cultural infrastructure can be found downtown.

However, the Sage study also concluded that the “demographics of downtown Hagerstown are presently incompatible with the formation of a vibrant arts, entertainment and education cluster.”

The Sage study found that downtown poverty and subsidized housing act “as a barrier” to forming the cluster. Similarly, the strategic plan, made public in January, found the downtown’s rundown buildings and poverty an impediment to economic development.

The strategic plan listed a number of other possibilities for revitalizing the downtown, among them moving the Washington County Public Schools administrative offices there, along with the baseball stadium project and a civic center.

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