By C.J. LOVELACE
5:25 PM EST, January 13, 2013
The struggles of operating a successful business in downtown Hagerstown are not a new theme.
Numerous longtime businesses have left City Center over the past few years, either for greener pastures outside the downtown or because they could not survive. Empty storefronts and signs advertising available space for lease have become commonplace.
SPIN, a former restaurant and bar on South Potomac Street that opened earlier this year and closed recently, is just one example of the businesses that have struggled to make it work downtown.
With that in mind, Mayor David S. Gysberts said Thursday that reaching out to existing businesses to offer any available assistance, as well as recruiting new, diverse businesses should be top priorities for economic development staff as the city continues to try to revitalize its downtown.
“I think the key is to create that synergy between large and small projects,” he said. “The overall goal is obviously jobs. We want to see more jobs in Hagerstown, especially in downtown.”
The city’s newly hired downtown manager, Andrew H. Sargent, will be responsible for helping improve the downtown climate — economically and culturally — and supporting the city’s strategic directions for the City Center, according to Jill Estavillo, the city’s manager of economic development.
The duties of Sargent, who will make a base salary of $70,740 plus health care benefits, include promoting the City Center, retaining and expanding current investments, attracting new investments and improving the physical environment of the downtown.
Sargent was not available for comment, to allow him time to “get settled” into his position and “get him up to speed on existing programs and services,” Estavillo said in a Jan. 3 email.
The title of downtown manager is new for the city, but the job tasks aren’t, Estavillo has said. The position replaces the former title of downtown business retention and recruitment manager, previously held by Christy Blake, who left the city.
City Councilman Martin E. Brubaker, who has worked closely with the Hagerstown-Washington Economic Development Commission for the past few years in office, said attracting a larger business, possibly from a nearby metropolitan area like Washington, D.C., should be a major goal moving forward.
“If we landed a name brand, or at least a recognizable company, that invested in us in town, then I think that would bring others with them,” he said. “That’s where I hope we can renew our efforts.
“It’s the outreach to find the people who may not know that they want us,” Brubaker added. “We don’t believe in ourselves. We have a lot of cultural assets. We have a lot of locational things ... just the ease of getting around here. I still appreciate that. I spent 30 years in a metropolitan area. There’s just a whole lot of things that make this a desirable area.”
Sargent’s job falls under the umbrella of the Department of Community and Economic Development, and covers just the downtown City Center area. Estavillo is in charge of coordinating citywide efforts.
The city’s elected body does not have control over the hiring process of staff, according to the city’s charter, but they would have to approve the creation of new positions.
City Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said the five-member council has no power to offer opinions on the hiring or firing of employees under the city charter, except for the ability to fire the city administrator. The council does have the power to approve the firing of a department head, but only at the request of the city administrator, Metzner said.
“We have no dealings in personnel whatsoever,” he said. “So that would never be a name that would be brought to us at all.”
According to other information provided by Estavillo, other specific responsibilities of Sargent’s job include, but are not limited to:
• Proactively reaching out and responding to inquiries from existing businesses to support business retention and expansion.
• Proactively canvassing and responding to inquiries for business attraction.
• Growing awareness and participation in a range of incentive programs, such as the Partners in Economic Progress program, enterprise zones, Arts & Entertainment District, sign and facade grant, women- and minority-owned business, and others.
• Growing awareness and managing business participation in a range of programs, like City Center dollars, Park & Shop, the Small Business Saturday promotion and others.
• Maintaining a database of downtown businesses and developing key metrics on vacancy rates and trends.
• Developing newsletters, news alerts and other communications to keep businesses informed.
• Serving as the city staff liaison to key groups, such as the Downtown Alliance and the Greater Hagerstown Committee’s Urban Forum.
Brubaker said he feels that all the talk about building a new stadium in Hagerstown, which has largely floundered to date, might have hindered business recruitment and retention efforts over the past year.
“I think we’ve made great strides in the staff being cooperative with people who want to do stuff, whether it’s downtown or out on Eastern (Boulevard) or wherever,” Brubaker said. “And we’ve made great strides in making staff understand their job is to try to make things happen, not just raise obstacles ... I really think we’ve made progress during this economic downtown in those areas.”