The county's search for better jobs

August 16, 1998

Bob MaginnisWe haven't heard much about it in the current campaign, but there probably isn't a more important issue for Washington County voters than economic development. Population growth is inevitable; when Maryland's MARC train reaches Frederick in 2002, we'll probably have more of it than we want. But business and industrial development aren't such a sure thing. Recently I've been talking to some knowledgeable people about what it would take to spruce up this area's image.

Better manners, said one expert. That doesn't mean closing your mouth when you chew, but being gracious hosts when businesses are looking at sites or locating here. In April of this year, there was concern when County Commissioner Jim Wade reacted to the announcement of a TruServ distribution center by releasing a letter that said the 300 jobs it would bring wouldn't provide salaries that would "pay for four-year colleges or provide sufficient income to raise a family."


At the point, TruServ was a done deal, and although I agree with Wade that the county should be setting its sights on higher-paying jobs, to welcome someone in, then bash them for the salaries they pay doesn't enhance the county's image.

Wade isn't the only one who's engaged in this kind of behavior. In November 1997, all the commissioners agreed to sell a six-acre industrial park site to a firm that specialized in treating medical wastes, the backed off when residents rallied against the plan.

In the early 1990s, the county welcomed in a firm called Clean Rock Industries, then stood at arm's length while the firm was chased from two sites, only to face a protracted zoning battle at the third one that still isn't over. In 1988, Hagerstown Mayor Steve Sager welcomed the Rouse Company to develop the Municipal Golf Course, then wrote a "get lost" letter when citizen opposition began to build.

It's a simple, really. It's okay to say no, but once you've said yes, or after the deal is closed, changing your mind or griping about the terms doesn't enhance the area's reputation as a serious place to do business.

Another need this area has is the development of brand identification, one expert told me. If, for example, someone says "The Research Triangle," people know they're talking about the group of high-tech industries grouped around Southern coastal areas. Washington County needs the same thing, in part to counter negative publicity that periodically comes from metropolitan media reporters determined to sneer or chuckle at the rural folks.

Until those things happen, and until John Howard, the county's new economic development director, can put some projects together, one expert told me that Washington County will continue to be targeted for distribution-type businesses. Those firms may not pay top dollar, but they provide revenue through personal property taxes, and they are a step in the area's evolution to better things.

As economic development commission member Doug Wright Jr. said when the ServPro center was announced in April, cities like Carlisle, Pa. and Charlotte, N.C., which were once known as distribution centers, have since grown into areas known for other types of commerce.

That evolution will probably take place gradually, one expert told me, because so much of the developable land here is in private hands, as opposed to being in county-controlled industrial parks. If the zoning is right, the county often can't say no. That doesn't mean county government has to fall all over itself with the "any jobs are good jobs" attitude of the recent past. But it is possible to tell a developer that grant money and the special help will be reserved for firms of a different type.

Can it hurt to aim a bit higher? Not in my view. When residents rejected a truck plaza proposed for the Hagerstown's western edge, it meant the land was available later for First Data Merchants. It shouldn't be impossible for the county to reserve a business-park site, or even develop a new one, and announce that it's going to be held for a firm with an average pay of more than $15 an hour.

County officials might even go further and specify that the jobs they want in this one niche be for college graduates. I don't know how many times over the years I've heard from parents who worked hard to send their children to college, only to discover that Susie or Sammy couldn't come home again because there weren't any jobs suited to their education.

At the same time, consultants studying the possible re-use of Fort Ritchie told the county commissioners in 1996 that the county's "educational attainment level" is below the national average. Only a small percentage of those who live here has been educated beyond the high-school level, the report said, adding that "this will turn most knowledge-based industries away."

In other words, the college-educated children of local residents don't return to the county because there aren't jobs for them, and the jobs don't come because not enough local residents have college degrees.

It's a cycle the next board of commissioners has to work at breaking somehow, perhaps by convincing one of those knowledge-based industries that if they come, the sons and daughters of local people will return here after college, or after a stint in another area's work force.

To help the area prosper, the next board of commissioners has to preach the need for education to a population still stuck, to a great degree, on the idea that a youngster can graduate high school, then start work at a good-paying manufacturing job.

Those days are gone. The best candidates for commissioner will tell citizens the truth - that to bring the best jobs here, the county's work force must be as well-prepared as the sites in our industrial parks.

The Herald-Mail Articles