Hagerstown -- Dexter and Mary Louise Koehl abandoned bucolic West Virginia for a three-story townhouse in a new Hagerstown neighborhood.
Among the reasons the transplanted Minnesota couple crossed the Potomac River last summer was the public transportation in Hagerstown, Washington County's largest city and also its county seat.
Mr. Koehl, who works for the Travel Industry Association of America in Washington, finds commuting to the capital still a long trip but more convenient from Hagerstown than Martinsburg, W.Va.
"He takes a bus from Hagerstown to Shady Grove and then catches the Metro," Mrs. Koehl says. "Hagerstown had the best public transportation system into the district and that's one of things we were looking for with a new home. It's a lot easier for him."
The couple was also looking for good schools, affordable housing, low taxes, low crime and little traffic. They found it all in Hagerstown.
That would come as no surprise to readers of Money magazine, which ranked Hagerstown 34th among the nation's 300 largest metro areas in its annual list of the Best Places to Live in America. The city outranked other Maryland cities, including Baltimore, which was rated 99.
Each year, Money asks its subscribers (median age, 48; median household income, $75,320) to determine what qualities they value most in a place to live. This year, Money polled readers on 43 factors, and low crime, low taxes and public transportation -- factors important to the Koehls -- were among the top concerns.
Among the categories Hagerstown did well in were high school graduation rate, restaurants, budgets of symphony orchestras, proximity to professional sports teams and low water pollution.
It did better this year on crime, arts, economy, health, housing, leisure and transportation, and fell only in the weather and education categories. Its only ranking near the bottom was average commute time.
"The poll put us in the spotlight," Mayor Steven Sager says. "It's real nice it happened, but I don't put a lot of stock in it."
The mayor notes that Hagerstown had been listed at 169 and at 295 in previous Money surveys.
"People move here for as many reasons as there are households," the mayor says. "In general, it's a very nice place to live and people enjoy the pace of life. It's slower than the city but faster than the country. There are a lot of quality-of-life issues that work well for the city of Hagerstown."
Richard Startzman, a real estate agent with Clover Realty, lists good roads, proximity to the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas, and the surrounding landscape among the city's attributes.
"We have excellent roads in just about any direction and the scenery in most directions is beautiful," he says.
Others note the closeness to Antietam National Battlefield, about 10 miles south in Sharpsburg, and a wealth of outdoor recreation areas, including the Appalachian Trail, state parks and the historic Chesapeake and Ohio National Historical Park.
Mr. Startzman and others readily admit, however, that downtown Hagerstown doesn't have the ambience of, say, Frederick.
Revitalizing downtown has been a longtime goal of city officials, who have made some strides by buying vacant buildings, refurbishing them and then selling or leasing the space. The mayor also notes more than 70 downtown buildings have been renovated by private interests over the past 10 years -- an investment of over $50 million.
And Hagerstown boasts some gems not found elsewhere in Western Maryland, including the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, a nationally recognized art museum and the only art museum in Western Maryland, and the Maryland Theater, a restored early 20th-century neoclassical theater and home of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra.
Shirley Bayer, an associate broker for Re Max Achievers, said the city's location at the crossroads of Interstates 81 and 70 (the highways intersect just south of the city) appeals to many people willing to make commutes to Washington and Baltimore. "It's easy to get around here," she says. "But I think the big reason a lot of people move here is that you can get more for your money. They can buy the house they want here and still work in Baltimore and Washington. I think that's the big draw."
Well, they can work in Washington or Baltimore, but it is a long commute: Either city is about a 90-minute drive away.
The housing stock is varied -- everything from mid- to late-19th-century and early 20th-century homes in Hagerstown's
historic districts to new townhouses, duplexes and upscale single-family homes in neighborhoods at the city's edges.
Larry Popp, a builder and owner of Heritage Quality Builders, has been building large homes -- selling for $225,000 to $275,000 -- throughout Hagerstown the past several years.
"Hagerstown is a great place to live," he says. "We have people moving here from all over. They want to get away from the hustle and bustle in Washington and even in Frederick."
Mr. Popp's current project is building two-story, 3,700-square-foot homes on one-third-acre lots in Fountain Head North, a relatively new development at the city's north end.
Pat and Debbie Labozzetta, also transplanted from Minnesota, are among Mr. Popp's recent buyers. Mr. Labozzetta, director of operations for food wholesaler SuperValu, was transferred to Hagerstown last year.
The couple, who have three school-age children, chose Hagerstown over places in neighboring Frederick County because of the city's small size, proximity to Mr. Labozzetta's job and stores and schools.
"The people here are good and they're nice," says Mrs. Labozzetta, a homemaker, school volunteer and soccer coach. "The day-to-day living is cheaper and we're real happy with the schools."
With residential growth has come commercial growth.
Mr. Popp points out the transformation of Wesel Boulevard near Valley Mall during the past two years. The once rural area has become a boulevard of shopping centers, restaurants and fast-food franchises.
Commercial growth also is occurring along U.S. 40, known here as the Dual Highway. The four-lane highway is already home to countless small stores, restaurants, motels and fast food eateries.
Hagerstown's growth, the mayor says, has been aided by a diverse economic base. The city's work force, not unlike others in Western Maryland, was once dependent on a few manufacturers.
That has changed in recent years as small companies have moved into industrial parks. And the city's two largest private employers are a diverse pair: Citicorp Credit Services Inc., Citibank's East Coast Visa operations with 1,900 employees, and Mack Trucks Inc., with 1,300 workers.
"Hagerstown has its problems," Mr. Startzman says. "But we're still away from the city and the problems there. And we're not as bad off as a lot of small cities nearby. Things could be a lot worse."
Population: 35,445 (1990 census)
Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 90 minutes
Commuting time to Washington: 90 minutes
Public schools: Elementary schools: Bester, Emma K. Doub, Eastern, Fountaindale, Hickory, Lincolnshire, Salem Avenue, Winter Street, Pangborn, Paramount, Potomac Heights; Middle schools: E. Russell Hicks, Northern, Western Heights; High schools: South Hagerstown, North Hagerstown
Shopping: Martins Food Market, Valley Mall, Pennsylvania and Cleveland avenues; Weis Markets Inc., Valley Plaza Shopping Center; Super Fresh on Maryland Avenue; Ames Shopping Center; Longmeadow Shopping Center; Old Orchard Shopping Center; South Hagerstown Shopping Center.
Nearest Mall: Valley Mall, Interstate 81 and Halfway Boulevard, Hagerstown.
Points of Interest: Washington County Museum of Fine Arts; Maryland Theater, restored neoclassical theater, home of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra; Jonathan Hager House and Museum, home of the city's founding father, built in 1739; Hagerstown City Farmers' Market, oldest continuous farmers' market in Maryland, established in 1791; Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum, museum depicting the history of the Western Maryland Railroad and six other railroads that made Hagerstown the Hub City.
ZIP codes: 21740, 21741, 21742
Average price of single family home*: $99,394 (688 sales)
* Average price for homes sold in Hagerstown and Washington County through the multiple listing service of the Greater Hagerstown Association of Realtors over the past year.