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Hagerstown Council wants investors

development group wants 'to get things done'

April 23, 2013|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com
  • Hagerstown attorney D. Bruce Poole listens as Dane Bauer of the engineering firm Daft McCune Walker, speaks with the Hagerstown City Council Tuesday afternoon during its work session.
By Joe Crocetta, Staff Photographer

A representative of a real estate development group that wants to move forward and craft a master plan to help revitalize downtown Hagerstown said Tuesday that he’s growing “frustrated” with the city council’s inaction in the process.

“I’m getting frustrated and irritated,” said Hagerstown attorney D. Bruce Poole after a 90-minute presentation and discussion at City Hall, where he and Dane Bauer of the engineering firm Daft McCune Walker sought the city’s approval to proceed with the process.

“It’s time to get things done,” Poole said. “When we were back here in January, I said ‘Look this needed to be a process where people made decisions and we moved.’ And unfortunately this process has really drawn out.”

Representing a group that includes Sora Development, Poole and Bauer were given city approval on March 8 to talk with interest groups, community stakeholders, business leaders and state officials about different opportunities for downtown redevelopment.

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Bauer told city council members one of the most predominant things they heard in discussions was that people aren’t willing to take the first step and invest in Hagerstown’s core. However, the master planning process, like the one the group has been trying to initiate with the city by way of a public-private partnership, is something that groups did support, he said.

Potential project ideas, Bauer said, include the Washington County Board of Education wanting to develop a joint venture with The Maryland Theatre and a restaurant owner to develop an all-encompassing arts center on South Potomac Street. Building a downtown hotel was also part of those discussions, he said.

Bauer said they met with Joe Ross, president and chief executive officer of Meritus Health, who expressed a desire to bring a new wellness clinic to the downtown.

Other ideas include building an aquatic center in the downtown and a stadium project, Bauer said.

The overall goal of the group is to work in conjunction with city staff and elected officials in identifying selected projects that both can support, Bauer said, and then incorporating the placement and funding models into a comprehensive plan that puts the “meat on the bones” that state officials and investors can get behind.

“That’s the plan we’re talking about,” he said. “This is a plan to implement, a plan that shows you how you can build it.”

Councilmen Lewis C. Metzner, Donald F. Munson and Penny Nigh generally supported moving forward with the group, while Councilmen Martin E. Brubaker and Kristin B. Aleshire had some initial questions about the proposal.

Aleshire said he was displeased with the group’s inability to provide the five-member council weekly updates on their progress over the past weeks. He also said any service that the group may want to provide should go through the city’s public bid process.

“You as an entity would work as our vendor,” he said. “And the process that I have witnessed over that period does not give me great confidence.”

Bauer responded saying the city can’t put out a request for proposals “to find people with the networks that we have.”

“We’re asking for an opportunity,” Bauer said. “For a year, we’ve never asked you for money. Bruce had an idea we could make a difference, so we’re here. I’ll leave it to your judgment.”

Brubaker criticized the group’s proposal, which he said did not include enough indication of private investor support and focused more on government-led projects.

“We don’t have an investor posed to do things down here,” he said. “... We need to have a clear strategy. I think strategy is a better word for this than plan.”

Poole said the city needs to work with them in developing a consensus on a vision of what they want the downtown to become, and then meet with all the general stakeholders to move forward.

“This is not just a matter of drawing up something, putting it on a piece of paper and putting it in a file somewhere and tucking it away,” Poole said. “It’s a matter of knowing the right people, the right questions, where to go and getting things done.”

Bauer said the proposal includes creating a steering committee of 12 to 15 people, including state and local officials as well as numerous business leaders that have expressed interest in taking part.

“It certainly appears that the Sora group that has come in has been able to achieve a lot of goals, and the most obvious goal of all was to sit and see who was in the audience tonight,” Metzner said, meaning numerous county, state and business officials at City Hall for the presentation.

“The perception I have is that people think one of two things is going to happen: Either the same old, same old, or anything else,” he said. “And I think the people in this community are ready for anything else.”

Poole, who spent a lot of time talking to state officials in Annapolis toward the end of the recently concluded General Assembly, said many people across the state are watching Hagerstown, “wondering what’s going on.”

“They read the paper every day and they’re all scratching their head and saying, ‘What on Earth is the problem?’ We need a plan; we need to execute,” he said.

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