HAGERSTOWN, Md.—Downtown Hagerstown will might never be a retail magnet again, but getting a major employer to locate downtown could attract the small shops and restaurants needed to support a large business or institution.
"It's a chicken or egg argument," Mayor Robert E. Bruchey said after Friday's meeting of the Greater Hagerstown Committee.
Do retailers draw people downtown to shop, or will downtown employment create retail opportunities?
"We need a company that can come in with 200 jobs," Bruchey told the assembly of county and local elected officials, and business people at Meritus Medical Center outside Hagerstown. "How do we accomplish that? What kind of crazy incentives do we offer to make this happen?
He said a large private employer, or an institution such as the Washington County Board of Education, could help bring new life and business to the downtown, but accommodations and concessions could be made to seal a deal, such as guaranteed employee and customer parking.
City Councilman Lewis Metzner expressed his concern that the demographics downtown are changing and not in a positive direction. Senior housing is being replaced by subsidized rental, or Section 8, housing, he said.
While senior housing did not bring a great deal of discretionary income downtown, "it didn't drive people away," Metzner said. The council recently learned that the Alexander House is shifting from senior to Section 8 housing, concentrating more subsidized housing downtown, he said.
A high-end jewelry store is unlikely to want to share the same building with subsidized apartments, Metzner said.
"I firmly believe the community has bastardized the idea of Section 8 housing," Councilman Forrest Easton said later in the meeting. "It wasn't to move all these folks to one place .... It was to help them pay rent."
As far as big-ticket projects like a new parking deck, Councilman Martin Brubaker said the city cannot commit to expensive improvements without business and property owners joining in.
"We need to get real commitments on investment .... The city cannot go it alone," Brubaker said.
The historic downtown architecture can be both a plus and minus, Bruchey said. Streetscapes can be maintained by preserving building facades, backed by new construction that replaces buildings not readily adaptable to modern business needs.
"You still have the streetscape, but you have a new building," Bruchey said.
However, some of those buildings do attract new businesses, Councilwoman Ashley Haywood said. There are 13 web-based businesses within a block of Public Square, and those proprietors are attracted to the exposed brick and hardwood floors these buildings offer, she said.
One project Haywood and Washington County Administrator Gregory Murray said would benefit both the city and county would be a bridge across Antietam Creek.
The project would alleviate traffic congestion on Eastern Boulevard and the Dual Highway, improve infrastructure and spur development of the Mount Aetna Farms area.
But it does come with a big price tag, about $10 million, Murray said after the meeting.
"That is one project where joint cooperation is an absolute must," Murray said. "The county and city have jointly supplied information to our federal legislators" seeking funding for the project, he said.