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In Hagerstown, even dogs don't always have their day

April 08, 2013

The City of Hagerstown has had better days. Perhaps last Tuesday produced a meeting that will one day be looked back upon as the turning point — the day there was nowhere left to go but up.

Worst was the news that the Washington County School Board had rejected the council’s overtures and agreed to relocate its offices and considerable staff outside of the city limits. Viewed in the kindest light, the school board simply opted for the better deal; viewed in the harshest, it simply did not want to be part of what’s becoming a downtown train wreck.

If, like a scorned lover, the city is looking for reasons why the school board was hesitant to commit, it need only cast a glance into last week’s mirror.

Emblematic, perhaps, of city malaise was an unfruitful, hourlong discussion over a dog park. Generally speaking, this is the sort of uncomplicated project that most local governments wrap up in a few weeks.

But in Hagerstown, the decision has dragged on, achingly, for months, as the council has failed to decide on a suitable location. The project was handed off to a task force, but now that the task force has reported its findings, the council has balked yet again — making it a mystery why the city entrusted a task force with the matter in the first place.

The aforementioned loss of the school board might, in some areas, inspire elected officials to buckle down and find out how they could make the city more enticing in the future. Yet individual council members seem more concerned about justifying questionable actions of the past. Councilman Kristin Aleshire in particular has taken to public message boards trying to explain why the decision to let the Suns stadium proposal die was not really a mistake.

And Mayor David Gysberts even went so far as to quip that warfare might give the city a better chance at recovery, a remark for which he apologized. Later, he was perhaps so miffed at the school board’s decision that, asked for a reaction he said his reaction was no comment.

The real head-scratcher, however, was the city’s approval of an advisory panel that will come up with a way to keep its eye on public-private partnerships such as Sora, a redevelopment group that is interested in helping revitalizing the city. The city signed a nonbinding agreement with Sora last month, and officials really seem to be focusing more on the fact that it is nonbinding than on the fact that they signed an agreement. City Economic Development Director Jill Estavillo told the council that, like other redevelopment groups, Sora has its own interests in mind, and that the city should seek counsel from people who can deliver “unbiased consulting advice” that is disconnected from Sora’s financial interests.

We appreciate the city’s concern that people might want to make money, even as it must condemn one building after another (recently it was the venerable Hamilton Hotel) where people are not. Indeed, the problem at the moment is not that too many people are profiting in Hagerstown; the problem is that not enough people are profiting. And to throw one more obstacle in front of Sora just might be the last straw for the city’s last hope.

As public blunders go, this one is cheap. It will only cost taxpayers in the neighborhood of $10,000. And at some point, Sora might look back and thank the council for giving it fair warning of its obtuse policies, allowing it, like the school board, to get while the getting is good.

But someone over at City Hall should understand that there is a reason no one wants to do business in Hagerstown. When an elected body can’t even decide on the right place for a dog to stretch its legs, what hope is there for visions of a higher order?

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