A good start toward piecing together economic puzzle

April 09, 1998

Bob Maginnis

Washington County Economic Development Director John Howard on Tuesday told 90 local businesspeople that while it may be popular to talk about "the big Buffalo hunt" for new industry, the real challenge is not the search, but becoming a place where businesses want to locate. Despite that, Howard was clearly pleased by the announcement that Phoenix Color would build a new factory on 80 acres next to Citcorp and the regional airport.

As CEO Louis LaSorsa made clear, there were any number of sites where his firm could have put its new plant, where it will actually create whole books, as opposed to the high-quality jackets and covers it makes now.

The complex, which will eventually employ up to 600, will begin with a 170,000 to 200,000-square-foot factory building facing Interstate 81. It will be joined by two more, all of which will be linked to a central administration building through fiber optics. On the edge of the property, there'll be a hangar to house the firm's corporate jets.


It's a major triumph for Howard, picked last September to fill a post that had been vacant since November of 1995. His hiring followed a bruising battle that pitted the County Commissioners, who wanted near-total control of the position, against the business community, which wanted a a major say in what went on, in part because many lacked confidence in the county government's ability to get the job done.

That feeling wasn't entirely justified, because during the time in which there was no EDC chief, economic development coordinators Beverly Baccala and Sharon Disque put together some impressive projects, including the Staples distribution center, Purina Mills and Phillips Driscopipe.

Howard will have to do the next project without those two, because Disque recently resigned to take a post as regional director of development for CSX Transportation, while Baccala has been hired as coordinator of the the One-Stop Employment Partnership in Frederick.

Howard has a plan, which he said involves getting Washington County to look like "a big league player." That means promoting the area as the crossroads of Interstates 70 and 81 and looking for a slogan that would embody the county's desire to be thoruoghly professional in its approach to job creation. He suggested "Pride through Performance."

Commissioners' President Greg Snook said that at least one of the vacant EDC positions will be filled by a marketing coordinator, who will help to create a strategic plan, brochures "and everything that goes with it."

EDC will also survey the work force, Snook said, cataloging the number of employed and unemployed workers, the skills they have and the number who coimmute out-of-county to work.

The utlimate goal, he said, is to "increase the average per-capita income in Washington County."

How will that be done?

Howard said a key job will be improving workforce preparedness, which means beefing up the school system and local training programs. And as Howard and Phil Kelly of Citicorp Credit Services made clear, it means publicizing the good things that are already here, like the Maryland Symphony Orchestra and the local park system.

There's a lot of work to be done in this area; the county has no public information director and the City of Hagerstown only recently upgraded Karen Giffin's position to give her enough time to do the job right. With some exceptions like Citicorp, Allegheny Power and St. Lawrence Cement, most local industries expend little effort (that I'm aware of) on public relations.

One part of that local p.r. effort that didn't get much of a mention Tuesday is tourism. This area is important not just for the economic activity it generates, but because it can bring in business executives who might see potential opportunities that aren't apparent if they only looked at, for example, the number of Washington County residents with advanced degrees.

The final piece of the puzzle may be the most difficult - rejuvenating downtown Hagerstown. Citicorp's Kelly said that the mark of a successful community is a "town center that is clean and attractive." LaSorsa revealed that his firm had put $40,000 into a plan to renovate the Baldwin House. Downtown is a beautiful area, he said, adding that "people really ought to get off their butts and do something about it."

The problem with downtown is that there is not just one problem to solve. If some storefronts are empty, it's because their tenants (and customers) have moved to new developments on the fringes of the city. In my Sunday column, I'll take a look at some things that could begin to reverse this trend.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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