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People to Watch 2018

PTW 2018

Introducing HM's colorful cast of characters that are positioning themselves to make a positive difference in Hagerstown.

by Matt Makowski and Photos by Turner Photography Studio

Kathyrn Gratton

Born and raised in the area, Kathyrn is chairperson of the Hagerstown chapter of SCORE, executive director of the Arts Alliance of Greater Waynesboro, a Bold Futures Mentor with Girls, Inc., and self-proclaimed connoisseur of trash TV. “I've been playing in the boys club forever. I'm around guys all the time — that might be the reason I need the ‘Real Housewives’ TV shows,” she says with a laugh. The 36-year-old mother of three is the embodiment of the philosophy, “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” — as long each day ends with being able to spend some time with her kids. “Just having all those elements together makes me happy.”

Q. As a point person in the business community, was marketing and business development always your career path of choice?
A. My first career stop was to be an electrician. I went to Franklin County Career Technology Center.

Q. How did you pivot away from your early inclinations?
A. I got injured on a job site. And combining this with health issues, I said, “This is probably not my path,” fell into marketing, and loved it. I love the creative side. Plus I feed off the energy that entrepreneurs have. 

Q. You started this career swivel as an ad rep with VerStandig Broadcasting, developing marketing plans for clients. Is this still in-line with what you’re doing with SCORE?
A. Mostly — it’s just now that I’m in an earlier phase with businesses. I’m working with them after they had that epiphany at 2 a.m. You’d be amazed how many overnight phone calls SCORE gets, especially on weekends. Even when it’s the drunken idea, we're calling them back or we’re emailing back to try to see if there’s something there. We never tell them, “No, this idea stinks.” It’s more, “Let’s talk it through.” Let’s go down this path and then see if this is the journey they want to take. We try to lead them to make their own decision.

Q. As director of the arts alliance, and chairperson of SCORE, do you find yourself wearing the business or arts hat more often?
A. It’s kind of a 50/50 — I mean the arts are a little heavier lifting because it’s newer in my world. But they intertwine with each other so easily because there’s a lot of artists who don't know how to make a business of their hobby. It’s that same passion that entrepreneurs have.

Q. In addition to finding volunteers, where do you volunteer your services in the community?
A. Two years ago, Girls, Inc. started a program called Bold Futures Mentors. We get together on a weekly or monthly basis with a small group of girls, and talk with them about whatever’s going on, and give them a role model. It’s almost doing the same mentoring as I’m doing with businesses, but giving it back at an even earlier stage with our young ladies and helping them figure things out.

Q. What are the professional hurdles you find yourself facing the most? 
A.They both have the exact same problem — it’s finding enough people to do everything. Finding volunteers, because SCORE being 100 percent volunteer, anything I want to do, I need bodies. As for the Arts Alliance, I’m the only paid staff member, so again, I need bodies to help me accomplish X, Y, and Z. Finding enough people who have that dedication to do something and give their time up is hard. 

Q. Hot or cool? How is the business climate in Washington County?
A. Our small businesses are on the rise. While the heroin problem is hurting the area’s ability to attract larger employers, we’re busier than ever with requests through SCORE of people looking for assistance to either grow or start their business.


Devonté Dinkins

Devonté is the president of Legit Management, and has a big, bold concept for transforming downtown Hagerstown’s housing market into an affordable campus, filled with entrepreneurs and families — and his strategy has already moved past the concept phase and is slowly being realized. “The vision that I have, it’s about affordability, because of how I grew up,” he says. Having grown up in “not the best area” in Prince George’s County, Devonté showed an early interest in real estate, and after a series of injuries sidelined his collegiate basketball career, he transferred to Frostburg State University to finish his degree in business administration while taking a deep dive into studying real estate development.

Q. What prompted you to get involved in real estate in Hagerstown?
A. I was already studying markets in Baltimore and Hagerstown after a professor told me about the University System here, so I decided to check this market out while I was still in school. I came here and started looking at certain areas that I would want to live. I thought if I’d want to live there, maybe I can get other people to live there. Two months after graduating college, I came here and bought a three-unit property.

Q. What was it about Hagerstown that got your attention?
A. I’m from the D.C. area where people want to live downtown, but the problem is that it’s so expensive there. What I like about Hagerstown is that it’s an emerging market, so stuff near downtown is super affordable — especially for a new family or an entrepreneur. In D.C., they’re making new versions that look just like Hagerstown. They’re trying to re-create it, but Hagerstown already has everything right here. It’s crazy.

Q. You’re vision for downtown is complex though. Because you’re not just trying to get people and businesses downtown, you’re also trying to make sure people who already live here don’t get priced out in the future?
A. When a place gets fixed up, a lot of people wind up getting pushed out of their neighborhoods. The nonprofit I’m developing is targeting new ways people can purchase their home. The plan would be for us to buy the house, and they keep paying us just like they were paying rent, but it’s actually a rent-to-own situation. I also want to teach people how to take care of their house, about preventive maintenance, and teach people how to use their house to invest. When you have a house, you have equity. That equity can be used for a lot of things, like starting a business. 

Q. So where is phase one taking shape?
A. I’m working on what I call the entrepreneurship campus, on South Potomac Street. Some people might consider it a bad neighborhood, but it has good bones — like the elementary school, the new library, South High. I want to put entrepreneurs in the same neighborhoods as families — and you’ve got to do both at the same time to convince people and businesses that it’s a good place for them to move. Hagerstown has everything a person can need. One day, entrepreneurs are gonna be saying, “I want go to Hagerstown to start my business, because that’s where all the entrepreneurs are.” This could easily be the East Coast version of Silicon Valley.


Ronnie Brezler

Ronnie is the market president for United Bank in Washington County, serves as commissioner for the Washington County Housing Authority, and is on the Washington County Public Schools Professional Advisory Council. But some of our younger readers may just know him as “Coach,” from his duties working with his son’s sports teams. The North High graduate wasn’t quite sure what to do after donning cap and gown — and a stint studying radiology didn’t offer him the track he was looking for. But indecisiveness doesn’t pay the bills or cover insurance, and at the urging of his father to try a gig as a bank teller, Ronnie was sent on a career path he’s not looking back from.

Q. You’ve seen a lot of fluctuations during your young career. After working up through the ranks at Hagerstown Trust, leaving to join a new bank that was bought out after the recession, have things stabilized for you?
A. Yeah, I’m at a job that I love doing — I didn’t think this is where I was going to be—but I’ve always liked taking care of people; I like solving problems that people have, which is what I’m doing. And my team here is great. I like working with these folks every day. I trust them to do their jobs — and they all do it very, very well.

Q. Your volunteer work seems to follow some pretty specific categories. What’s the impetus behind your decisions to get involved with a cause?
A. For me personally, my choices of things to support have revolved either around real estate or kids. So, the Housing Authority was something interesting because of the real estate aspect. I was also involved with the finance academy of South High for about seven years, and did mock interviews, and helped the school system develop curriculum that’s applicable to today’s business world. I also go to some of the elementary schools to present material to second and third graders to teach them about the power of saving.

Q. What has your work in real estate taught you about the needs of Hagerstown?
A. As a commissioner for the Housing Authority, I see the need for good, affordable housing for low- to moderate-income individuals. There’s not a lot of great options. You’re relegated to downtown primarily, and dealing with the older housing stock that’s there. We’ve seen studies that show there’s a shortage of apartments here in the area, so we’re looking to build some new ones and continue to grow the area that way.

Q. Aside from housing, what’s on your Hagerstown wish list?
A. I’d love to see a new stadium get done here — cities would kill to have an asset like the Suns. I think it would be a huge draw and an economic driver. A multiuse stadium that could be used almost daily for something could be huge for tourism and the local economy.

And in terms of the economy, if we could get HCC to be a four-year school, and build a new technical high school out here to feed it, companies from outside the area will see us educating people from high school through college and want to be here. It could be a huge driver if we got something like that done.


Brittany Wedd

Brittany is the board chair of the student space ambassador program for The Mars Generation, serves on the board of the Monarch Alliance, is an ardent advocate for Lyme disease treatment policy change, and most visibly, serves as the director of operations of Discovery Station. The big picture goal is advocating for the colonization of Mars, but she isn’t sure she wants to be part of the avant-garde first arriving on Mars. “The radiation is really bad there. It’s like 86 percent higher radiation levels than here on Earth,” she says in typical nerdy fashion. As for smaller goals, Brittany really wants to learn the lyrics to “Despacito.”

Q. Working at Discovery Station, you’re obviously a big proponent of all things education. In the STEM vs. STEAM debate, is there room for the arts in a curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math?
A. If you’d asked me ten years ago, probably not. But the whole thinking behind it has changed. You have to be able to use both sides of your brain. You have to incorporate creative elements — whether you’re an engineer or an astrophysicist, you have to be able to think outside of the box.

Q. Because of your personal struggles with the disease, you’ve long been an advocate for Lyme disease awareness, prevention, and even policy change regarding treatment options. How is the uphill fight going?
A. Because more and more people are getting it, I think we’re going to see a shift. Right now, there’s more funding in this country for research into swimmer’s ear and leprosy than there is for Lyme disease.

Q. Are you talking to lawmakers about this? And should the conversation start at the government level, the research level? 
A. I submitted testimony to Congress in March. We are trying to get a bill passed in the state of Maryland because insurance companies won’t cover long-term antibiotic usage. It’s a really complicated, old mindset based on 10-year-old research that hasn’t been updated. 

Q. So it’s due to the fear of long-term antibiotic use creating bigger, badder bacteria?
A. Yeah, and I 100 percent understand that— but at the same time, we’re dying. Another issue is the diagnostic testing is so faulty. Only 50 percent of people develop the rash. Nobody really knows that. People who get Lyme disease and don’t develop the rash get sick and just think they have the flu. So by the time you get it caught, it can develop into what I have, neuroborreliosis, which means it’s past the blood/brain barrier, and you need long-term hardcore treatment.

Q. On the local side of things, from your vantage point, what's Hagerstown lacking right now?
A. I think one of our biggest issues is that there’s a stigma that it’s a horrible place. I think what we’re lacking is hope breathers, and a positive narrative — we need to look at the good that is happening here and not just focusing on all of the bad.

Q. What are the good narratives you’d like to spread?
A. We have a lot of really good leaders in the community. There are a lot of people that truly care about what’s happening here. We have all these really good organizations and nonprofits that really want to make an impact here. So, we have the basic foundation that we need to make it better because we have the people here that want to do good.