Starting at the core: How one big venture reflected a sea change for downtown Hagerstown

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Editor's note: This is the second in a series of stories looking at the growth and development in Washington County over the past few years, answering the question "Why now?"

What happens when several people with visions for moving a community forward come together?

It could mean a package of projects that triggers other development.

The Urban Improvement Project in downtown Hagerstown brought together multiple projects for education and cultural spaces that many believe served as a catalyst for new development that followed.

The approximately $40 million project is "a thread in the fabric" that has made the county attractive to investors, says Washington County Director of Business Development Jonathan Horowitz.

"You can't lay something over top of this downtown and make it successful again," he said, but "everything they've done in Hagerstown, programs that they've pumped into downtown Hagerstown, the hiring of (Community Engagement Officer) Brittany Arizmendi to manage their downtown … they've done a lot."

In fact, a number of factors have contributed to new investment in downtown Hagerstown, according to Jill Thompson, director of Community and Economic Development for the city of Hagerstown.

The UIP, she said, is one of them.

"Definitely that is one of the key driving factors for new investment that's happening in the downtown. Even preceding the Urban Improvement Project, you have the investment of the University of Maryland," she said, referring to the University System of Maryland - Hagerstown. "So having education as a key driver of the economy of our downtown … precedes the Urban Improvement Project by many years.

"You also have the investment of over $20 million of the Washington County Free Library; there's another significant investment. The city's early commitment to the first two parking decks, now the third — so infrastructure development happening downtown, and the connection of downtown to City Park and the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts (by the) Cultural Trail" have all contributed to the investments happening now.

USMH opened in 2005, Barbara Ingram School for the Arts opened in 2009 and the new Fletcher Branch of the Washington County Free Library opened in 2013 — all in renovated or redeveloped properties downtown. The library was built on the site of its previous facility.

In 2014, the city drew up a 10-year strategic plan for further redeveloping the downtown core, which included plans for retail, office and cultural projects. It identified eight "catalyst projects," which included expansion of The Maryland Theatre and the USMH campus, extended arts and events programming, more home ownership and the development of the Cultural Trail.

In the nine years since, several of the projects have been completed — many either the result of, or affected by, the UIP.

Multiple challenges, one multifaceted solution

The UIP evolved from a blend of public and private investment and vision that addressed expansion needs for The Maryland Theatre and BISFA, and the goal of downtown redevelopment.

It initially included the USMH campus, and while the campus ultimately followed a different path for its expansion, its inclusion helped get the momentum started.

Former state Sen. Andrew Serafini, R-Washington, credits Greg Murray, a past county administrator, for coming up with the plan.

"I don't know that I always have great original thoughts," Serafini said. "But I recognize good ones."

The idea of expanding BISFA on its own hadn't gotten much traction, even though students were shuffling from its main building on South Potomac Street to other sites, including USMH, for some of their classes and meals.

"Then you had The Maryland Theatre sitting there needing some help," Serafini recalled, "and so Greg said, 'I think if we package this … I think this has some success.'

"Well, a lot of people started to get a little excited about that. But then it was OK, what else could we do?"

At about that time, Serfini had told The Herald-Mail he wanted to revive an old arrangement for representatives from the Hagerstown and county governments to meet together — the old "two-plus-two" arrangement designed to get members of the city council and the board of commissioners meeting regularly to foster communication.

Eventually representatives from all the parties involved in the UIP were talking. But when Serafini approached former Gov. Larry Hogan for state funding for the plan, Hogan gave him a challenge.

"What struck me is he said, 'Listen, I'm going to help you, but this is not going to fix downtown Hagerstown,'" Serafini said. "He said, 'You have to get the business and the nonprofit organizations to come together … this is a kickstart. I'm giving you an opportunity with this.' And he fully supported it.

"But he said, 'You now have to take this and go out in the community and say, are we going to create an amazing downtown experience that also can play to your strengths?'"

The Maryland Theatre is seen lit up on a recent June evening in downtown Hagerstown. The front of the theater, which had been an apartment building, was destroyed in a fire in 1974. A new front of the building was constructed after a major capital campaign. The theater reopened in 2019.
The Maryland Theatre is seen lit up on a recent June evening in downtown Hagerstown. The front of the theater, which had been an apartment building, was destroyed in a fire in 1974. A new front of the building was constructed after a major capital campaign. The theater reopened in 2019.

'A lot of people had to set aside their own agendas'

A core group of local government officials and business people met weekly. "There were others that didn't come and were doubtful," Serafini said.

But banker Tim Henry "talked about the previous iteration of a possible stadium and talked about how he saw a lot of interest from people in the buildings and in the community that really surprised him," Serafini said, "and it surprised me, even. He said there's a lot of people that are willing to do things in the downtown."

The group was committed, Serafini said, "but I gotta tell you, I think Greg Murray and I and maybe a few others believed that it would work … not every meeting ended well; not every meeting ended with everybody happy with each other. Because everybody is willing to work, but there's a level where they've got to defend their turf.

"A lot of people had to set aside their own agendas a little bit."

The key to the UIP, he said, was getting a third of the commitment from local governments and a third from private entities, and then the state would come in.

"But we needed Gov. Hogan to come first, which he did. And that was helpful," Serafini said.

In this Herald-Mail file photo, state Sen. Andrew Serafini, R-Washington, talks during a Hagerstown City Council meeting.
In this Herald-Mail file photo, state Sen. Andrew Serafini, R-Washington, talks during a Hagerstown City Council meeting.

Hogan pledged about $7 million toward the project, and more state money was allocated for the Vincent Rauth Groh Academic Center adjacent to BISFA.

The theater solicited private funds. The county chipped in money for the Groh center. Hagerstown agreed to develop a plaza behind the buildings. And while the final blend of financing didn't quite fall neatly into thirds, it did show a mix of public and private confidence in the project. Here are the numbers, provided by the city of Hagerstown:

  • Hagerstown: Nearly $4.4 million in grants and General Fund contributions

  • Washington County: More than $6.5 million, including $4 million for school construction

  • Washington County Public Schools: More than $14 million, including $10 million from the Maryland Interagency Commission on School Construction

  • Maryland Theatre: Nearly $5 million in pledges, grants and contributions

  • State of Maryland: Nearly $8 million in capital allocations and bond bills

Hogan traveled to Hagerstown for the groundbreaking. And everybody got to watch the progress from South Potomac Street.

If you build it, will they come?

Even before the project was finished, more investors set their sights on downtown Hagerstown. In mid-2019, Thompson told The Herald-Mail that more than $15 million had been invested in other ventures downtown.

"It would be hard to say they're not coming here because of this Urban Improvement development. They see the investment," Chamber of Commerce President Paul Frey said then.

Hogan returned to celebrate the completion of The Maryland Theatre expansion in October 2019. But thanks to the pandemic, completion of the Vincent Rauth Groh Academic Center was celebrated with a virtual program 11 months later.

But while the pandemic might have rendered the center's completion more subdued than anticipated, it didn't thwart interest downtown.

Offerings at USMH had been growing, as had the need for classroom space and student housing. The first major student housing project had been completed in 2016, and more followed. The former BB&T building across the street from the main campus was being renovated for USMH use as the UIP developed.

Hub City Vinyl, a record store on East Baltimore Street, opened just before the pandemic hit. Three years later, it's still expanding. The landmark Schmankerl Stube German restaurant at South Potomac and East Antietam streets continued its expansion project despite COVID. The Bowman Group continued its renovation of buildings on South Potomac Street. New restaurants fought for survival through the pandemic.

Not all those stories had a happy ending. But many did. And before the pandemic hit, the revival of an old idea many thought was dead had suddenly gained momentum that continued despite the crisis.

Then-Del. Paul Corderman, R-Washington, had always believed a new stadium downtown was a viable project. UIP had underscored that interest in downtown Hagerstown wasn't dead.

And in 2019, he persuaded former Del. Maggie MacIntosh, then chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee in the Maryland House of Delegates, that it was viable, too.

Downtown Hagerstown was on the brink of landing another development catalyst.

Don't miss: Have you noticed all the new development in Washington County? There's a reason for it

Next week: 'Game-changing.' 'Transformational.' Three big projects reflect Washington County's development surge

Looking back: As UIP progresses, downtown Hagerstown investments multiply

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail: The UIP triggered interest and more development in downtown Hagerstown