09 February 2009

The Decline and Fall of Downtown Hagerstown

In recent years many towns and cities have undertaken revitilization and gentrification projects for their Central Business Districts, to great success. I think of Baltimore's Inner Harbor and Downtown Frederick for two. Shepherdstown, WV enjoys a thriving "downtown" also, thanks to the nature of the College Town. Hagerstown, however, has largely failed to capitalize on what has the potential to be a source of civic pride, cultural enrichment, and revenue (both business and tax). I see this failing as being more than the fault of a misguided council or fickle shoppers. There is a larger problem nestled in the Cumberland Valley.
The Hagerstown area is a great destination for shoppers already, with the Prime Outlets - anecdotally - a favorite destination. The trip up Route 65 into Downtown is one only minutes from the Outlets, and is no deterrent for shoppers. If we built it, they would come. Why aren't we building it?
We aren't building it because we are fretting over what tax breaks to give to developers or what sort of window panes we might force them to install, rather than focusing on the real issue: Goods jobs with Good pay. I, along with my wife, and most of my friends who live in Hagerstown, drive to Frederick or points along I-270 for our work. Why? Because there are no competitively paying jobs in Hagerstown. I have been scoffed at, sometimes with great incredulity, when in the past interviewing with potential employers in Hagerstown, and the question of renumeration arises. Because of this I have driven to Frederick for work for a decade.
"This is excellent!", You might cry; bring those dollars home from Frederick and spend them here! And for a portion of it, I do. However, I spend that money where other visitors spend it - national chains who likely have received tax breaks for building their stores here and whose revenues go into a corporate coffer just the same as if I'd shopped at those same stores in Frederick, Chambersburg, or Salisbury. I do not, you see, spend money downtown. I spend my days in Frederick, and I am therefore much more likely to be in tune with what is gong on in Frederick, much more likely to want to stay here, or even drive back down, to enjoy the downtown and all it has to offer.
Because of this downtown Hagerstown suffers. If there were more high paying, technological jobs in Hagerstown, or even Washington County, I would certainly prefer to not commute 30 minutes one way daily, and be much more likely to want to spend my time downtown. Also, think of the increased tax revenue such businesses would deliver, and then there's the ecological factor, growing in importance every day. Taking all those cars off the highway is certain to help us all breathe a little easier.
This has been bothering me for some time, but when people like "bflodave" make their comments on articles that show how we might be making some progress in Washington County (http://www.herald-mail.com/?cmd=displaystory&story_id=216321&format=html), it makes me wonder if he is the same person (people) who laments our declining downtown, failing to realize that in the 21st century, if you do not develop intelligently locally, you will not develop at all.
Hagerstown and Washington County, take heed. Bring the high tech jobs home, and pay us what we're worth, because if you don't, we won't just work in Frederick, we'll likely move here, too. But then maybe downtown will be revitalized: Wal-Mart style.

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