Hagerstown reawakening as its charm is rediscovered

October 25, 2004|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN - In some respects, this city resembles a vintage postcard. The Snow White lunch counter advertises "Ladies Invited." The Award Beauty School has 1967 wallpaper, vinyl stools - and haircuts for $5.75.

But there is a chic newcomer: Marcel's, a stylish cafe, is attracting crowds with its Hawaiian wraps and almond pastry. New government and business offices occupy every corner of the once-vacant town square. Fall flowers bloom in place of a dried-up fountain.

Drawn by the word on Hagerstown - cheap rents, spacious brick buildings and nostalgic charm - investors, businesses and young professionals are bringing new money and energy to its sleepy downtown.

"Ten years ago, we didn't look like this. We didn't have much of a streetscape," says Tom Newcomer, 43, owner of R. Bruce Carson Jewelers, which has stood on the square for 102 years. "There's been a noticeable change."

Downtown property values are up 30 percent in the past three years. Renters are moving into new lofts in turn-of-the-century buildings, young families into refurbished historic homes. Some blocks are still empty in this blue-collar Western Maryland city of 36,687, but others are beginning to bustle anew.

Perhaps the single biggest impetus for the activity is a $12 million campus that the University System of Maryland is opening in a 19th-century building a half-block from the square.

Classes are scheduled to start in January in the 1881 Baldwin-Routzhan building, an elegant former hotel and department store that had languished on the city's inventory of vacant properties. Next door, the city is creating a $1.23 million public plaza on the site of an old piano warehouse that was razed this year.

The university center wound up in downtown Hagerstown because of the Smart Growth policies of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening. In his campaign to curb suburban sprawl, Glendening went against the wishes of county and university officials five years ago - insisting that the campus be in the central business district instead of on undeveloped land along Interstate 70. Delighted city officials donated the property.

Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner says it proved to be a turning point for a downtown that was deserted for the better part of three decades once its railroad and manufacturing jobs disappeared.

"We have some very attractive buildings," the 73-year-old mayor says, "and the university really put us on the radar screen."

Settled in the late 1700s, Hagerstown became known as "hub city" because of its strategic location near Pennsylvania and West Virginia. During the railroad era of the late 1800s, the 11-square-mile city boomed, its streets lined with large warehouses, hotels and stores.

"When I was a kid, you pretty much went downtown for everything," recalls state Del. John P. Donoghue, a Hagerstown Democrat. "You'd go for your Christmas shopping, the movies, or just to walk around."

By the late 1970s, however, there was much less business. One-quarter of the work force in Washington County was unemployed. The city's theaters closed and, repeating a familiar exodus across the country, the department stores moved to suburban malls. Bargain stores and liquor shops remained.

Since he took office in 2001, Breichner, a Democrat who had worked for the city government most of his life, has acted with the City Council to make downtown renewal a priority.

They are trying large and small tactics. New parking is going up to ease persistent meter complaints. Rebates of $100 a month are available for apartment renters. Businesses are being recruited with loans and tax incentives.

One of their successes is Marcel's. Swiss-trained chef Marcel Wenker opened his European-style bakery and restaurant on Potomac Street last month with the help of a $50,000 startup loan. City development officials sought him out after conducting a survey that found a majority of people wanted a bakery to return downtown.

"It's a promising area," says Wenker, who has sold out to lunch crowds with only word-of-mouth advertising. "It still doesn't look that good down here, but all around, businesses are going in."

Potomac Street is reinventing itself as an arts district. The 1913 Maryland Theater, saved from the wrecking ball in the 1980s, has been selling out symphony and country rock concerts. Mobs of cheering teenage girls turned out recently for an Aaron Green concert.

Nearby is an old Elks building the city took over in December 2003 and hopes to turn into a school for the arts. Home to Hagerstown's first air-conditioned movie theater - and notable for its ornate wood paneling - the building was empty for 20 years.

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