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City's 'bubble' bound to burst, but when?

March 03, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND

In one of the more original and perhaps accurate descriptions of downtown Hagerstown, attorney Bruce Poole this week said the city is suffering from a bubble, “a bubble of inactivity.”

Bubbles are traditionally thought of as the product of irrational exuberance. In 1636, people in the Netherlands frantically speculated in tulips, mortgaging their homes to buy overpriced bulbs. Predictably, this did not end well.

But the source of Hagers-town’s bubble might be irrational depression. If so, that might be good news of a sort, since bubbles always pop.

The outsiders who came to Hagerstown circa 2005 and snapped up properties purely out of speculation have mostly gone bust, their buildings and debt sold off to capital firms specializing in distressed property at 30 cents or 40 cents on the dollar.

If our reverse bubble were to burst, developers theoretically would suddenly see all this undervalued property for sale and begin to snap it up out of fear — if they wait too long — of missing out on the gold rush.

Poole’s bubble of inactivity, however, is more nuanced. Cattle rarely stampede because of inactive coyotes.

Instead, Poole is referring to the economic activity going on all around us while we remain static. In other words, for our bubble to burst, someone has to break the trend instead of perpetuating it.

This is proving more difficult than anyone might have figured, especially considering that just seven years ago Hagerstown seemed on the brink of an economic breakout.

Today, one downtown shop after another has given up the flag with little indication that the pattern will be reversed.

And it won’t be until two things happen. First, all arms of state and local government have to realize that this is their fight, too. The city is the focal point of the county. No one knows where Washington County is any more than most of us can name the county in which Cambridge, Md., or Harrisburg, Pa., is located. If Hagerstown is lousy, people will assume that the county it’s in must be lousier still.

And the school board is certainly free to wash its hands of all things Hagerstonian and move into the less-cluttered suburbs — and if no one else is going to buy into city revitalization, it probably should.

Second, the county, school board and state delegation have to commit to the city and mean it. City Councilman Kristin Aleshire basically said he’d believe the commitment of everyone else when he sees it, and right now he doesn’t. When the county, school system and state do on occasion meet with the city, it is often with the enthusiasm of a husband who has been dragged to a chick flick; they all start checking their watches about 10 minutes in.

One council member said that despite a face-to-face meeting with the school board, the city had to learn about the board’s plans to look at moving to the former Allegheny Energy building secondhand, through staff conversations. If true, that isn’t likely to make the city feel as if we’re all on the same team.

Nor does the city itself seem to be moving with gazelle-like speed to draw up any grand design, and within weeks it might become known evermore as the Council Members Who Lost Professional Baseball. Yet, even the potential burden of this dubious distinction sparks no urgency.

And all this doesn’t even begin to address the multi-headed beast that is heading up economic development in this county. As the Urbanomics study aptly pointed out, there are so many competing agendas and proposals coming from so many sides that no one can tell which end is up. The old baseball adage of 25 players, 25 cabs would seem to apply. Until there’s some unification, some revelation that saving Hagers-town is a team sport, it is hard to envision progress.

Hagerstown’s reverse bubble will not burst until some overriding action triggers a reverse panic. Some development companies are trying to help, but in true Hagerstown fashion, even they are cursed as being “in it for the profit.” A private company trying to make a profit? Do tell. For everyone’s sake, we better hope a whole lot of people make a whole lot of profit on the downtown, because that’s the only way out. The alternative is that the temporary bubble becomes a downward spiraling nuclear winter from which there is no escape.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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