After a lengthy public discussion with an outside group of real estate development officials Tuesday night, Hagerstown Mayor David S. Gysberts and city council members spoke positively about the opportunities the group could present in terms of redeveloping various parts of the city.
Represented by local attorney D. Bruce Poole, the group of officials consisted of Tim Elliott of the real estate development company Sora Development, Dane Bauer of the engineering firm Daft, McCune and Walker Inc., and Chuck Brawley of Skanska, a multi-national construction company.
The group, which has been in talks with the city since last May about possibly doing a large-scale urban renewal project, went over its extensive portfolio of jobs in the past, including numerous downtown redevelopments and stadium projects.
“We wanted to tell them everything we’ve done since May of last year, and explain to them where we’ve been successful elsewhere and why we can make Hagerstown work,” Poole said after the 75-minute discussion at City Hall.
Elliott said the “glory days” of downtowns have passed and Main Streets all over the country have been decimated by big-box stores and shopping complexes.
What works now, he said, is forging a public-private partnership that can be tailored to the specific needs of a community such as Hagerstown. And with available capital, great connections and an extensive background working with officials in the Maryland General Assembly, the group brings a wealth of knowledge to the table in putting a master comprehensive plan in motion, Elliott said.
“You have to find partners who believe in what you want to do,” Bauer said.
Gysberts said downtown redevelopment has been an issue for years in Hagerstown, and it’s always come down to a lack of synergy among the parties that could make it happen, meaning the city but also private investors.
“I think the discussion tonight was sort of a step in the direction of moving that vision forward,” Gysberts said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of questions about different projects and what the different needs are throughout the community, but I think this is a good first step in ... getting on the same page with where we want to move Hagerstown into the future.”
Elliott highlighted work the group completed in places such as Glassboro, N.J., Greenville, N.C., and Rock Hill, S.C., where the group worked with municipal and education officials to revamp previously run-down areas of those cities with new, vibrant attractions and development.
Making a downtown “walkable” and sustainable are two major factors in the work that Sora does, Elliott said, noting that Hagerstown offers a great starting block with the layout of Potomac Street that could serve as a backbone for branching out further development.
Councilwoman Penny Nigh said their presentation offered the most realistic plan she’s heard yet for revitalizing the city.
“Your concept is wonderful,” she said.
Officials from the group also touched on conversations that they’ve had with Meritus Health about the now-vacant plot of land toward the city’s East End where the former Washington County Hospital once stood. That’s just one component of the larger project that they would like to see come to Hagerstown, they said.
“It’s not just one solution,” Poole said. “Yes, we’ve got the team together that can put things in place if the council and Meritus decide they want to go forward with a sports stadium. And there’s all sorts of things that can be done there, too. It’s multi-faceted. Really what we’re talking about is something that will be carried out over probably 10 years.”
Elliott suggested that the group and city come together to develop an advisory board to help identify what assets the city currently has and where they could be enhanced through the master plan.
All sides expressed a sense of urgency to get a plan in motion, and Bauer said that the initial, workable framework should be in place by this summer so they could begin figuring out a financial plan to make a formal pitch to the state legislature by next fall.
“You can’t do anything without money,” Gysberts said. “Money is what makes the world go ’round, and so yes I think it’s important that we have the right team of people together.”
Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said there’s been more of a public push for downtown redevelopment in the past few months than he’s seen in his many years on the council, adding that it would be “absolutely foolish” to let an opportunity like this pass without pursuing it.
Metzner said the city should seek out representatives from Neighborhoods 1st groups, senior citizens and other people living in the downtown to gauge interest and get feedback on their ideas for projects.
Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire was encouraged by the group’s willingness to come before the council in open session, backing their interest in increased transparency at City Hall. He said he’s in favor of investing in education in the city’s core and trying to spur new opportunities in the otherwise “neglected” East End.
Tuesday’s conversation helped to highlight how Hagerstown needs to “think bigger,” Gysberts said, and an outsider’s perspective could prove beneficial identifying the city’s current assets and where they may lead.
Poole said he felt very encouraged by the long discussion and it tells him that the city understands the challenges of a long-term comprehensive project.
“They understand it’s going to be very involved and complicated, but on the other hand, they’re not going to sit back and study it to death,” he said.