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Plenty of questions remain as BOE dust settles

March 31, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

In the late ’90s, Allegheny Energy hoped it would become the next Enron; unfortunately, it succeeded.

But for a brief year or two, before anyone had heard of raptors or Jeffrey Skilling, it appeared that Allegheny might soar in the rarefied, Fortune 500 air, wheeling and dealing energy contracts from coast to coast, raking in unbelievable fortunes and rubbing elbows with the likes of Merrill Lynch and the big boys on Wall Street.

But by 2002, everything was blowing up. Most critically Allegheny lost big gambling in West Coast electricity markets — an activity that was a far cry from the old and dependable Potomac Edison business of generating and selling actual electricity back here in the ’hood.

In the first half of 2003, Allegheny reported losses of nearly $300 million, and that was basically that for Hagerstown’s brush with corporate glory. Unlike Enron, Allegheny was salvageable, even if its local headquarters wasn’t.

When the ax fell, Allegheny was in the process of remodeling its Downsville Pike office building into a palace more befitting of Wall Street hobknobbers.

Inspecting the building for potential purchase, Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox took one look at the lavish, chief-executive space, with its rich cherry wood and gilded mirrors and
immediately pronounced, “that’s not going to be my office.”

Early on, Wilcox has accurately gauged the importance of symbolism in Washington County. The previous superintendent was all but run out of town for wanting her own washroom.

By the time the top floor at Allegheny was finished the glory days were over, and the lower two were left as they were originally — a bizarre time capsule of capitalism interruptus.

This week, the Board of Education made it pretty clear that the Allegheny building will become its new central office, with apologies all around to the downtown. The city is still holding out hope that the board can be convinced
of the relative merits of an urban location, the key word being “relative.”

Everyone at this point understands the Allegheny site makes the most sense and will have the lowest cost, assuming the school board is operating in a vacuum. Wilcox is basically doing his fiduciary duty by steering the board in that direction.

Beyond that, the decision has basically broken into a somewhat infantile question over whether or not secretaries eat lunch at their desks.

The board insists that the impact on downtown commerce would be minimal, should the central office move into the city. That’s true if, once again, we are considering the board in a vacuum.

Good restaurateurs can tell you the number of plates they need to put on the table each day
to turn a profit. And one office building isn’t going to spell success or failure. But even in the typing pools of yore, employees would go out for lunch to celebrate a birthday of a co-worker or for an office party. And those special occasions, given enough typing pools, would add up.

As such, the problem with the city or school board or whomever, is that we keep thinking of downtown redevelopment one project at a time.

When the new council came into office late last year it was under the gun to make a quick decision on the proposed baseball stadium. That might or might not be an excuse for the council’s failure to realize that when it killed the stadium project it killed the school board central office project along with it.

The board sensibly didn’t want to go it alone, and without another major development to share the heavy lifting with, the board wasn’t interested.

It’s hard to know at this point if lessons have been learned. Board member Donna Brightman,
for one, is concerned that even at this late date there appears to be no consensus among council members who have had a full quarter at this point to develop a plan. As she implies, it’s next to impossible for the board to commit to downtown without some numbers to indicate what it’s getting into.

So the stadium as it was envisioned is gone, the school district is all but gone and now the council must hope that the Sora redevelopment group will bail it out be coming up with a workable vision for
urban renewal. And maybe it will.

But as we close the chapter on the board’s downtown dalliance, the irony is that what’s infected the city is now about to play out in the suburbs: Private business fails, a decade’s worth of redevelopment efforts for the property fail as well, and now a government entity steps in to fill the void.

There has to be a better way.


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

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