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People to Watch

by Matt Makowski | photography by Turner Photography Studio

People to Watch

By different means and professions, Gaby Polanco, Mike Fitzgerald, Jeffrey Toothman, and Erin Wolfe share a passionate vision for a bright Hagerstown future.

Erin Wolfe, 30, is the communications manager for the city of Hagerstown, and is tasked with delivering the city’s strategic plans to the public and news outlets. You may recognize this former journalist from her time as a reporter for WHAG-TV, but these days Erin finds herself working a little more “behind the scenes” — be it in the form of social networking, video production, or online initiatives. This self-described “local yokel” is thriving in her new position in no small part because it allows her to blend her two biggest passions: telling stories, and promoting the city she loves.

HM: What does you job consist of in a typical day?

Erin: That’s what I like about my job, there’s no real routine or schedule. Regular tasks involve talking to people in other departments — I like to say this makes me know a little bit of everything, but I don’t know it all. So I have a good feel for the pulse of each city organization, but I couldn’t give you details on all the nitty gritty.

HM: Do you find having to know a little bit about a lot of things frustrating?

Erin: No, but I think there is a challenge that I enjoy. My task is to communicate a message to the community. If it’s something that has to do with utilities, or with public safety, everyone speaks a different “language.” So it’s my job to tailor that into a universal message.

HM: What projects do you deal with on a weekly cycle?

Erin: My job is never done. I can never walk out of the office at the end of the day and be like, “OK, what do I want to do tomorrow?” It’s a never-ending to-do list that accumulates so much that I just have to start a new one. It may be working to put a video piece together. I schedule a lot of social media posts. We have an “engage Hagerstown” website [], which is an online community forum. I keep a pulse on that and see what kind of ideas and suggestions people are offering, and how we can incorporate those ideas into our processes as a government body.

HM: You’ve bounced around a little bit living abroad and in Philadelphia. Why did you decide to settle down in Hagerstown?

Erin: I hate to give the canned answer of “you have the small town feel, but you still have big city opportunities,” but that really is the case. Hagerstown hits all the checklist items for me. This is where I would want to raise children. This is where I feel needed, too.

HM: In your position I’m sure you hear all kinds of complaints; what’s one you’re tired of?

Erin: Hearing, “there’s nothing to do here.” Whatever! It’s all about speaking positive things into being. We have so many family-friendly events, and not just family-friendly things to do. If you go into 28 South on a Friday evening, there are great people in there who you can just strike up a conversation with. You don’t have to go to Frederick to get that. I don’t want to be like Frederick. We have the potential to be our own community and be a destination for people. We just need to get more people thinking in that direction.

HM: Is there anything from your childhood that you think helped develop who you are today?

Erin: If you go back to my early days, I was a big fan of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and April O’Neil was my hero. I was April for Halloween like three years in a row — yellow jumpsuit and all. The thing I liked about her was she worked with the turtles to help fight crime and do something good in the community. I think that’s how I got into news, but I think my love for news made me realize my love for my community.

Mike Fitzgerald, 31, is a real estate developer in Hagerstown, whose most recent success story is the rehabbed, redone, and refined Grand Piano Building on West Washington Street located smack dab in the heart of downtown Hagerstown. He started his adventure in the real estate game 10 years ago, operating out of a one-bedroom apartment after his service in the Army ended. He’s since been involved in more than 600 real estate transactions, and maintains a large rental portfolio in Hagerstown. Mike uses his scant free time to volunteer with Girls Inc., Habitat for Humanity, and the Boys and Girls Club. Due to his love of animals, he also maintains a “hobby farm” where he raises ducks, goats, miniature pigs, peacocks, and the like, but more on that later…

HM: Do you like your work?

Mike: I love what I do. I took a building on second street in Frederick — it was the ugliest building on the block, it was dilapidated, a hazard really — and I turned it into an absolutely beautiful real estate project. I like seeing what can be, seeing the finishes in my mind. I like making the community a better place, one property at a time.

HM: What project are you most proud of to date?

Mike: My biggest accomplishment right now is The Grand. It was pretty much falling apart when I purchased it. Some people thought I’d be taking tenants from downtown, or it would take years to fill with businesses, but I stuck with it. It took about 18 months to fill it — well it’s at 95 percent capacity now. I’m proud that I was able to pull in tenants from other counties, other states, I’m proud that I was able to bring new life into downtown Hagerstown. And I’m really happy with the city’s support — I couldn’t have done it without the city reimbursement grant.

HM: When not planning or working on a new project, what keeps you going?

Mike: I love spending time with my son. I support Girls, Inc., the Downtown Movement, I support Habitat for Humanity with one-off projects, I’m a member of B’Nai Abraham, and anything downtown Hagerstown I’m a huge supporter of. I like to give the maximum amount of time I can.

HM: Where do you get your work ethic?

Mike: My dad. I watched him work a couple jobs, a hundred hours a week. That motivated me, and rubbed off early. When I had a paper route, I won like every sales contest they had. I got tons of new subscriptions. I’ve always had a drive.

HM: What keeps you going in the direction you are?

Mike: My family. I wake up a lot of mornings feeling like I’m behind in life, and feel like I’ve got so much more to get done. I’m motivated to achieve that next goal. I’ve got too much to get done. I can’t sit down and watch the world go by.

HM: What are your goals and hopes for the city?

Mike: I want to see every building downtown filled to capacity, I want developers targeting areas to put high-end condos in, I want to see people walking around downtown like there were in the 1950s and ’60s.

HM: What’s something that someone would be surprised to learn about you?

Mike: I love animals. [Mike then gets a copy of the Herald-Mail from 1995 he keeps in his office about “The Bird Boy of Sharpsburg”]. I was on the front of the paper because I had a dove that rode around with me on my paper route. [The article featuring Mike reads: “Ever since I was a little kid,” says this charismatic 5-foot-1 seventh grader, “I dreamed of owning a pet store. What I’m going to do is I’m going to sell my all baseball cards, and open up a pet store, and from there if business is good, I’m going to start a whole chain of pet stores.”]

Gaby Polanco, 36, is the president and founder of the Maryland Diversity Center. She left her home country of Romania for Chambersburg, Pa., in 2001 as an exchange student before settling in Hagerstown in 2007. Her experience learning and acclimating to the rules, regulations, and mores of the country she now calls home was the inspiration for the Diversity Center. It was established to link, engage, and support people from all cultures that call this area home. The organization acts as a liaison between community members and businesses, agencies, and the local government, and also offers educational programs, workshops, and relocation assistance to recent immigrants. Additionally, Gaby puts her language skills to work (she’s fluent in five languages) as the editor and marketing director of Conexiones Diversity Magazine.

HM: How would you describe what you do?

Gaby: Basically, I manage myself (she says with her infectious laugh). I teach people about diversity, and we work with people from all backgrounds. We educate them, learn from them, and promote diversity in Hagerstown to show the richness of all cultures.

HM:What is the Maryland Diversity Center doing for recent immigrants in the area?

Gaby: I help people to connect to businesses and services. We work with the school system creating programs for children, and educating adults. People that move here from different countries don’t all know the system of the United States. For an immigrant that comes here for the first time — even if they speak English — they don’t know how to pay taxes, don’t know where to pay bills, or how to enroll their kids in school because it’s a different system. We help them learn how to do that. Even if they’re coming here for a two-year contract to work at a plant, they still have to find a house, and put their kids in school.

HM: Is there a lot of diversity in Washington County?

Gaby:Without considering the Hispanic population, which is the largest minority group here, we also have lots of people coming from India, lots of people from Europe — especially people working with big corporations like Volvo — and we have a very big Turkish, Vietnamese, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese population.

HM: Is the population of Washington County growing in terms of diversity?

Gaby: Oh, absolutely. Yes!

HM:What is drawing people from other countries to the area?

Gaby:Many are moving from neighboring counties, because it’s a little quieter. The price of living here is a little lower, and the school system is really good. Also, it’s a tri-state area, where they can live here and find a job in West Virginia or Pennsylvania, and still be maybe an hour away from D.C., or an hour-and-half from Annapolis … it’s close to everything.

HM: Between the Diversity Center, the magazine, and the work you do with multicultural events, it sounds like you keep a busy schedule. Do you ever get the urge to just blob out and watch some TV?

Gaby: For me, staying home is like losing the best of your life. It doesn’t make a difference in someone’s life. To make the best of it, to be able to sleep at night, and to know I’m doing the right thing, I just know I have to go out there and help someone.

HM: What hurdles have you overcome to get here?

Gaby: I’ve had jobs where my accent was in my way. People would tell me to speak very slowly. I had to practice. And I had to push to the background the thought of “my accent is who I am, and I’m not going to change it.” But sometimes you have to change your point of view, let go, and educate yourself.

HM: Care to make a closing statement?

Gaby: Enjoy life, enjoy the world, open your mind, and your limits. Life is a learning process. Learn from each other. With an open mind we can all learn from and accept each other.

Jeff Toothman, 36, is an orthodontist at Toothman Orthodontics. Born and raised in Washington County, he left to attend Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., to study physics and philosophy, and then went on to attend University of Maryland — Baltimore College of Dental Surgery. Initially, he didn’t envision returning to his hometown, but through his career and life path, came to realize how great of an area Washington County is to live in. When the opportunity opened up for him to practice with his father, he took it. Now settled down in Hagerstown with his wife and two daughters, Jeff places a high level of importance on community involvement, and he uses his unique skillset to spread the smiles.

HM: Tell me about your job.

Jeff: As an orthodontist I am fortunate to help create beautiful smiles with healthy bites. I am trained to evaluate proper growth and development of jaws in younger patients and correct existing alignment and bite issues in adult patients. I have patients in treatment from age 6 to 86 and appreciate the unique challenge that every person offers.

HM: In your line of work you could have lived just about anywhere. Why did you decide to settle in Hagerstown?

Jeff: After spending my first 18 years here I embraced the opportunity to receive my education in different locations, from small towns to bigger cities. Initially, I did not envision myself returning to my hometown but through my career and life path I came to realize how great of an area this is to live in. I had an opportunity to join in practice with my father, who has built a great reputation for his work in the community. Family is extremely important to me and Hagerstown offers a wonderful small-town family experience. I appreciate the genuine personal interaction that you get in a small town.

HM: Are you involved with any community organizations?

Jeff: I have always involved myself in my community. My job provides a platform for me to focus on certain areas of the community that I am in a unique position to positively affect, such as helping with the Western Maryland Cleft Palate Clinic, a multi-disciplinary team that serves area youth affected by craniofacial deformities, and founding the Mason-Dixon chapter of the Smile for a Lifetime Foundation, a nonprofit foundation that provides orthodontic scholarships for deserving but underserved children in our area.

HM:What pushes you to stay active in the community?

Jeff: Personally, I have always felt an importance to involve myself in community organizations. Professionally, I have an obligation to support my community's dental well-being. In any community, especially a smaller one like ours, being an agent for positive growth has a profound ripple effect.

HM:What are some of the positive experiences you’ve had being an active member in the community?

Jeff: I have been inspired by a number of community leaders through being a part of Leadership Washington County as well as the Greater Hagerstown Committee. I was able to serve as president of the Washington County Dental Society and am on the Dental Advisory Board for HCC. I am beginning to work locally on an initiative of the American Dental Association to divert preventable dental visits from the emergency department to the dental office, which will ultimately reduce Medicaid expenses for state taxpayers.

HM: As a busy person with a demanding job, you’ve obviously managed to develop a strong work ethic. Where did you get your work ethic?

Jeff: Growing up I watched my Dad work hard at his job and keep busy in the community, but always manage to find time for his family. I was also fortunate to help my grandfather with different projects and learned from him the importance of taking pride in your work through preparation, effort, and attention to detail while also maintaining a sense of humility in your accomplishments.

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