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City's indecision made choice easy for BOE

April 07, 2013

In the end, the Washington County Board of Education was able to do something the Hagerstown City Council was not: make a decision.

The school board voted Tuesday to purchase the former Allegheny Energy headquarters on Downsville Pike, which will become the new home of the administration’s central offices. In so doing, it left the City Council behind to watch as one more possible downtown revitalization project goes by the boards.

The city had hoped to entice the board to move into the city center, but had been sketchy about the details.

We wish the board and council had been able to make it work. The central office alone would not have saved the downtown, but it would have been a solid and dependable citizen — one piece of the puzzle.

A quick review of the facts, however, makes it clear that the school board made the responsible choice. The school system is getting an excellent deal on a piece of property that will allow for future growth — perhaps a new school — or leave enough land to sell if it needs to raise some cash.

Including renovations, the price is still millions of dollars less than the cheapest estimates for an office complex downtown. And the Downsville Pike offices will be more convenient and less congested for employees and citizens alike.

But, sadly, the main reason the school board needed to act as it did is that the city is an unreliable partner. Since taking office this winter, the current council has found reason to quibble and hedge over projects and ideas that have all but been handed to them for the taking.

The council killed a stadium project outright, a development that might have enticed the school board to follow suit. It has been suspicious of Greater Hagerstown Committee, a business group that volunteered to step in and do some of the research and planning free of charge. And the city has talked out of both sides of its mouth on the Sora redevelopment group, praising it one day as a downtown savior, while voicing distrust over its motives the next.

The school board has quietly been looking for a new home for at least two years, and in that time the city staff and elected officials certainly had time to decide on a plan. No one can say the city was blindsided by the school board’s action.

While we doubt rumors that the Allegheny building all of a sudden had a waiting list of people willing to buy, we do believe this was an attractive opportunity that the board couldn’t risk losing.

By contrast, we have seen the city’s inability to make a deal happen. We have seen the council’s inability to formulate a plan for individual projects and a larger vision for the city as a whole. Entering into an agreement with the city and blindly trusting it to come up with a workable and effective plan would have been foolish.

Unfortunately for downtown Hagerstown, the city’s indecision made the school system’s decision easy.

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