Hold the flowers. Cancel the wreaths. This little town in Western Maryland is rather ill, but it is not dying. And community officials are betting their town is likely to live as long and maybe as well as some of its healthier brethren.
In view of some of the current statistics, that might seem a foolhardy prognosis. About 14 percent of the labor force here is unemployed, out of a population of 34,132 people.
In Washington County, of which Hagerstown is the county seat, the unemployment rate is 12.3 percent. (The latest figures available show the national unemployment rate was 9 1/2 percent in July and August, while the metropolitan Washington area's rate, which is not seasonally adjusted, was 5 percent in July.)
And then there was last week's bad news. Fairchild Republic Co., a division of Fairchild Industries, announced plans to close its main aircraft plant here by the end of the year. Some 500 workers will keep jobs in two smaller, local Fairchild operations. But another 1,000 workers will join the ranks of the unemployed.
Fairchild, the county's second largest employer, has been an important Hagerstown fixture since 1929. The company pays well by local standards. Fairchild production workers make about $12 an hour and total salaries and wages paid by the company in the Hagerstown area amounted to $58.6 million last year. The company also paid nearly $3 million last year for gas, water, electricity and other utilities, and another $635,000 in area real estate and personal property taxes.
No one here disputes the seriousness of the impending loss, especially inasmuch as it comes on top of bad news from the Mack Trucks plant, the area's largest employer. The plant's current work force of about 2,300 is half of what it was in 1979, and local businessmen believe more Mack layoffs are ahead.
But visitors who come here looking for the Land of the Down and Out or a celebration of hopelessness will be disappointed. This simply isn't the place. Consider:
Year-to-date retail sales at Valley Mall, the area's largest shopping center, are running 11 percent ahead of sales for the same period in 1982.
Construction, representing an investment of $27 million and employing nearly 1,000 people, has started on seven new plants and commercial buildings in Washington County.
Hagerstown reduced its individual/corporate real estate and personal property taxes from $1.75 for $100 assessed value to $1.67 per $100 assessment at the beginning of the 1982-'83 fiscal year, which ended June 30. Yet the town still managed to pull in $3.6 million for 1982-'83--the same amount of real estate and personal property taxes it collected a year earlier. The reason is that property values continue to increase despite the town's economic problems, according to Hagerstown tax assessor Flossie Murdoch.
County real estate and personal property tax collections--excluding corporate taxes--improved slightly in the 1982-'83 fiscal year, rising to $15.3 million from $15 million in the 1981-'82 fiscal year.
The county, located at the intersection of Interstates 70 and 81 about 70 miles from Washington, is geographically well-placed to take advantage of future growth opportunities. Major trucking firms, such as Ryder, are building new facilities here to service markets in the Mid-Atlantic states.
"It is not fair to write us off," says Leroy R. Burtner, executive director of the Washington County Economic Development Commission. "Things could be a lot better. The Fairchild decision doesn't help. But we are doing a lot of things to attract other businesses. . . . I truly believe we're on the road to recovery," he said.
Hagerstown's agrarian roots have spread into a diversified field, producing businesses and jobs in the construction, manufacturing, transportation, wholesale and retail, financial and entertainment industry. But growth outside of the town--in the county and in the neighboring states of Pennsylvania and West Virginia--is as important to Hagerstown's future as is activity taking place within its borders.
An industrial map of major area industries, those having 100 or more workers, shows the picture.
The town is at the center of an industrial area populated by firms such as Certain-Teed Products Corp., a manufacturer of plastic pipes and vinyl siding employing 242 workers at its plant in Williamsport, Md. Doubleday and Co. Inc. is constructing a 20,000-square-foot facility in the area to manufacture printing plates. The Doubleday project, representing a $1 million investment, will employ 150 people, local officials say.
Much of the area's current and projected growth is and will continue to take place in a complex of industrial parks, local officials say. Four such parks already exist. They include the city of Hagerstown Industrial Park, six acres; the Interstate Industry Park, 90 acres; the 70/81 Industrial Park near Williamsport, 140 acres; and the Washington County Industrial Park, 200 acres.
That diversification has helped limit the erosion of the county's economic base, which has been battered by recession since 1979, Burtner said. "No one wants to lose a company like Fairchild. But the loss doesn't mean we are left without alternatives," he said.
County Commissioners' President Ron Bowers agreed. "Losing a company like Fairchild is a devastating blow, all right. It hurts the people who lose their jobs, as well as retailers and anyone else who depends on those checks. But Hagerstown is more than Hagerstown and Washington County is more than Washington County," Bowers said.
Valley Mall is a case in point. If the shopping center depended solely on Hagerstown or other Washington County area customers, it could be in deep trouble, said Valley Mall Manager William L. Bulla. But the center draws customers from neighboring areas of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, as well as from parts of Frederick and Allegany counties in Maryland, Bulla said.
Likewise, many Washington County residents work in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. And many people who live in the bordering states hold jobs in Washington County. That arrangement reduces the impact of a plant closing or production cutbacks on any one community in the tri-state area, Bulla said.
As a result, "Our strategy for trying to develop a customer base is to reach into and beyond the immediate community," he said. The mall's ability to post a gain in the midst of the county's economic woes indicates the strategy is working, said Bulla, who added that Valley Mall has been "doing well" for the past three years. "The mall will survive," Bulla said.
Washington County officials now say they will do more to promote tourism. For Frank R. Turner, who has just invested $6 million to expand his Ramada Inn here, that decision comes none too soon. "We need to do something," Turner said. "Most of the motels around here haven't been full all summer. We've got to do something to bring more people in."
The Hagerstown area is in the middle of several storied Civil War battlefields. Sharpsburg, the site of Antietam, one of the war's bloodiest battles, is just a few miles south of Hagerstown. The area was also the site of many skirmishes during the marches to and from neighboring Gettysburg.
Efforts by local officials to attract more businesses are laudable. But Turner said that approach could lead to a booby trap if too many of those businesses come with low-paying jobs.
"Fairchild pays $12 an hour. That's the kind of wage that buys homes and gets people out to my place. People who get paid $6 and $7 an hour, which is what many of the jobs around here pay, don't buy homes and those people don't come to my motel or restaurant. By the time taxes are taken out of their checks, they're struggling to pay the rent and the note on a used car," Turner said.
He said plans for getting more companies that pay on the scale of a Fairchild "are long-term, at best." But long-term doesn't mean hopeless, Turner said. "I've been around here since 1930 and I can tell you that these people don't give up easily."
"We've got a lot of good things happening in this county," said Bowers, pointing to work under way in the Washington County Industrial Park, which is being developed with the assistance of $1.2 million in state and federal grants. The park is expected to provide about 1,500 new jobs, including 17 new positions at a new county jail under construction on the same land.
The jail, however, is set apart from the park proper. Its exterior resembles a modern office building. "And the protection for business property will be unbeatable, because you'll have police around day and night," Bowers said laughing.
"We have more than a fighting chance. We're not worried about making it. The way I see it, we're already on the way."