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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

HAGERSTOWN NEEDS A P4: PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP AND PATIENCE

   Today was the big day for the City of Hagerstown. There was a mayor and council special session where a verbal presentation was given by Bruce Poole and Dane Bauer of the written report that the Sora "dream team" had submitted to mayor and council. I think all of Hagerstown had been on the edge of their seats waiting to hear back from them after the city signed a letter 5-weeks ago giving them permission to represent the city in meetings with interested parties regarding the revitalization of downtown. This was followed by a presentation of  Ripken Report Part II on two alternative sites for a new Suns stadium.  I will post blogs on these presentations separately, beginning with the dream team's. Both presentations had tense moments, but overall I walked away with a good feeling about the future of Hagerstown. I'll tell you why, but first I want to give a brief description of the verbal presentation.


THE USUAL PLAYERS WERE ALL THERE
   There was a good turnout of government and community stakeholders in attendance: State Delegate John Donoghue, County Commissioners Ruth Ann Callaham and William McKinley, Chamber of Commerce Chairman Brien Poffenberger, Greater Hagerstown Committee Executive Director James Kercheval, a representative from CHIEF, and others, including residents of the community. 


 LETTERS OF INTENT?

   Bruce Pool and Dane Bauer gave a quick verbal presentation of what was in the 8-page report that was submitted to mayor and council yesterday. I personally thought that they would have specific projects that each of the stakeholder entities that they met with had agreed on some level to act on with the proposed P3.  Instead it was a very brief and very vague presentation of talking points. Dane Bauer talked of a consensus building process saying that each entity felt that their individual projects depended on the action of all of the other entities. He named the BOE/BISA and the Maryland Theater and that they are interested in having an arts center all under one roof, he said that a hotel is needed downtown, that Meritus Health was interested in a clinic or wellness center downtown and that they "would be OK with the old hospital site to be used for the new stadium." However, when I read the so-called letters of intent from these entities I read a different story. To summarize what the BOE said, it was nothing more than nice to meet you, we aren't moving downtown but we are already invested in downtown [as was already stated in a Herald Mail article prior to their announcement to purchase the Allegheny Building], and we look forward to seeing what you can do downtown...we'll talk. The WCPS stated being encouraged and impressed with their efforts but made no real statement of intent to participate in anything specific except to explore opportunities that may come up...we'll talk. Meritus Health made no mention of starting a clinic downtown (in fact they recently closed the one that was on Antietam Street), but clearly stated that "our immediate objective is the sale of the old hospital site." The Maryland Theater stated that they believe that the dream team can help them achieve preliminary concepts already defined with the BISA...and they are hoping that Sora can tell them how to get a hold of some money. 
   Oh, and guess what the written report plainly states regarding the stadium site? 
"Our Team's relationship with Meritus Health will promote and advance opportunities to use that site for the new stadium..."
That's right. Here we go again. It's a foregone conclusion before Ripken even publicly presents the report! At least somebody thought so, but later the mayor and council claimed that is not the case. 


WE WILL DO THIS WITH OR WITHOUT YOU

   In the written version of this report, the dream team is selling themselves from every angle as thee only viable option for the city to engage for the revitalization of downtown. It goes so far as to say, in essence, we will do this with or without you. They claim that,
"...all parties have indicated that if for any reason the City would not agree to pursue the recommended approach described later in this report, that they would pursue these initiatives with our Team directly to implement desired outcomes and to use our Team to network with the other groups mentioned above."  
This is a pretty bold and arrogant statement from people who are trying to form a partnership. That would get my back up and make me question the dream team's ability to work respectfully and cooperatively with our elected officials. Although Dane Bauer has come off as a big shot at times in prior meetings, I have overlooked it out of respect for his record and hope for the future of our city, but I think that this was out of line. I looked at the letters of intent, and only the Maryland Theater made such a claim in writing. However, the Maryland Theater immediately  followed that statement with:
" ...the Maryland Theater reserves the right to explore all options independent of this initiative..."  
This attitude enforces the need for the advisory committee formed to advise the city on forming the P3. I know that the city was mocked by the Herald Mail for forming this committee, but it is now obvious that it was a good move. 

  NO ONE WANTS TO TAKE THAT FIRST STEP ALONE
   I suspect no one wants to take that first step alone because they don't have the money to do so. But that said, it makes sense that in a master redevelopment plan all entities would work together and collaborate throughout the entire process. 
   Dane Bauer talked about forming an Advisory Team or Steering Committee of 12-15 members. In the written report those interested and being considered for this committee are mostly the same ones who "steered" the first stadium proposal and who steers just about everything else that the city or county attempt to do: Joe Ross, Ron Bowers, Justin Harding, and Don Bowman, in addition to representatives from CHIEF, Greater Hagerstown Committee, Washington County EDC, State Office of Planning, MD Department of Economic Development, local business owners, and "community leaders." I heard or saw no mention of Neighborhoods 1st. 
    

TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE

Isn't it always? Bruce Pool said it is time to turn it over to DMV to lead the next phase because "time is of the essence." He argues that although the legislative session just ended, things are already in the works for next session. Besides that this will be the last year of 4-year terms and there will be turnover. New relationships are very difficult to start the process again. The next proposed step is for DMV and the city staff to work together as another team to perform certain tasks that make up Phase I of the master plan. Overall the entire plan would take up to a year to complete. The written report points out it is time to start paying the dream team and some of the terms that they would like to proceed on immediately following the meeting. 


MAYOR AND COUNCIL COMMENTS 

This is where it usually gets fun. I was not disappointed. 

Council Member Munson:

1. Were there any conversations with the University of Maryland?
Dane Bauer answered regarding a medical center not the college. Bruce Poole answered that there were talks, but the university feels that with there current financial situation they can not talk about expanding at this time, but maybe in the long term after other projects progress and after "we get the streets cleaned up and secured."

2. If we use the hospital site for a stadium, will the hospital [Meritus] bring serious facilities downtown to help us grow the city? Will they play ball with us?
Bruce Pool said that more discussion is needed. Joe Ross was already interested in downtown project. He's not clear on what the vision is and needs a plan first. [As I revealed earlier, he is only interested in selling the hospital site at this time. This makes me wonder how much of the other claims are sugar coated. Again, we had a clinic on Antietam Street and they recently shut it down.]

Council Member Brubaker:

   Brubaker wants to be a big-spending Liberal, but I am often surprised when he states exactly what I myself want to say. He seemed to be laboring over what is meant by a plan. He indicated that much has already been done. "We have taken great risks buying up properties and we're not even sure what we are doing with them. [Whoa!] We are not starting fresh. We have plans. We need imaginative investors." 
   Poole and Bauer jump in and state that we need a plan first and that we need government investment first. Investors don't want to invest here. There is no security, no longevity, and they think that it is going to get worse. We have to show them a noticeable difference that says that things are going to be different. 
   Brubaker is almost screaming at this point, "We had a clinic and it closed! We don't need government. We need private investors! [Woo hoo!] We need a strategy for reaching out to outside investors." Bruce Poole said, "That is not good enough. The Maryland Theater is a gem and they can't get anyone to fund them. Investors need details."
   I seem to remember the first time the dream team presented to mayor and council that Bauer was claiming that he had piles of money. Now...not so much. 

Council Member Alshire:

   When Alshire speaks I listen. It is always entertaining to me how he just lets it rip. This led to some tense moments today. He begins by scolding the dream team for not living up to the agreement as spelled out in the letter of intent. They were supposed to provide weekly reports and he hasn't seen any. All he has is an email where the dream team chastised the city for not being grateful for their work thus far and another email 40-days after the letter was signed that asks to meet with city staff.  He said that they gave the council this report in writing only yesterday. He does not so far have any confidence in a trusted cooperative partnership with them. He can't believe that the dream team wanted the $100,000 after a vote tonight with no pubic bid process. "The LOIs, the basis of which you want to proceed with an aquatics center and a stadium on the hospital site, and nothing has been presented to the public so far?" 

***crickets***

Bruce Poole said that he frankly didn't want to spend too much time on this or "it could deteriorate relationships. We have worked for 12 months and we are delivering results. The voters want results."

Council Member Metzner:

   Metzner stated that the city has been working on downtown for two decades and that they were making progress until the housing bubble burst. Hagerstown is having the same issues as many other towns due to the bad economy. He again acknowledged the momentum that was building during the initial stadium proposal, and the excitement of the business community that was apparent. [Not with investment money. Just saying.] He also acknowledged that the community and the voters did not want it. It was a huge disappointment. [The past administration should have asked the community before they made the initial plans.] He points out that the city is now at a crossroads. Will we move forward and keep the momentum building or do nothing. He wants us to move forward with the dream team. "RFPs yes, but I firmly support this effort." I'm sorry, but that seems a contradictory statement. 

Council Member Nigh:

   "I want to see a plan and investors. I want it to move forward, but you need a private entity to invest."

Mayor Gysperts:

   "I talk to people in the community and when I mention Sora it puts stars [money signs] in their eyes. The community seems to rather work with a private partnership than the city. [They are hoping for money.] Are we worth $30M in investment? I think we are. We are having an executive session next week with the legal team and we will have an RFP draft. The budget has to be finalized by May 21st, so something will be decided by then." 

Dane Bauer:

   We did keep in touch with the mayor. [That's not a weekly report.] Eighty percent of the work we have  done in the past has not been by RFP. We have done our part. Together we have spent $250,000. The city should match it. [Really? No formal agreement yet.] Sole source is acceptable with our special services, our contacts, and our networks. In the past, "we just did it!" We are offering 80-years of combined business and contacts. No RFP can provide that. I am just asking for the opportunity for Bruce...not the money. [Another one claiming he isn't in it to make a profit, which everyone knows is nonsense.] 
   I said in the beginning that I left the meeting with a good feeling about the future of Hagerstown. This was messy. It is supposed to be. I still feel,  5 months after the election, that we have a great balance with this mayor and council. I think that we need every one of them even though I don't agree with some of them most of the time. We need the spenders and we need the thrifty. We need the Pollyannas and we need the second-guessers. We need those who just see the big picture and those that are down in the details.  I believe that this mayor and council care about this city and will be successful at revitalizing downtown. It may be a messy, sometimes uncomfortable but necessary process, and the result will be what they were able to negotiate and deliberate until they got it right. It's not the one-party spending spree that happens in Annapolis, and it's not the grid-lock that we see in Washington D.C. It is just the way it is supposed to be, and I like it. 
   



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