For EDC director, go with workhorse Troxell

September 30, 2002|by TIM ROWLAND

The Washington County Commissioners and Economic Development Commission are gearing up for a search to find a replacement for retired EDC chief John Howard.

Let's hope they don't look too hard.

In a high-profile position there is always the temptation to go after an all-star - a charismatic leader from a high-profile city or region.

But the fact of the matter is that there isn't all that much one individual can do to attract a new business; the more vital and realistic job is for a community to create an environment that is receptive and conducive to business, so that when an executive starts asking questions we have all the right answers.

If you're hosting a game show you need a personality. If you're running an EDC you need - well, you need almost exactly what we already have in place at the Washington County Economic Development Commission at this very moment.


That is, a hard-working staff that knows the community backward and forward and is willing not only to travel around to trade shows, but to do, as they say in baseball "all those little things that don't show up in the box scores."

Here's a sampling of what Tim Troxell, essentially the office's acting director at the moment, and his crew have been up to of late:

  • Working with Montgomery County to set up a plan in which more western counties will give a Maryland home to tech companies that have outgrown the suburbs.

    Infant tech companies like to set up shop in Montgomery County because of its proximity to federal labs and agencies such as the National Institutes of Health. But once they have established their product and want to start manufacturing, they have to look elsewhere because of Montgomery County's high costs for space and labor.

    Instead of losing those companies to other states, the Potomac Tech Territory initiative aims to steer those businesses to spots such as ours with cheaper labor and land.

  • Keeping current with business trends by scouring obscure trade publications for tidbits and hints of the future. We all know that telecommunications is going to be a dead industry for a long time, right? Just wait. You may be surprised.

  • A peculiarity of the computer age is that the face of manufacturing is changing. In the days when a drill press was a drill press, qualified machinists were plentiful. Now, when so much of the manufacturing process is computer dependent, "companies are crying out for machinists," Troxell said.

    Under the lead of Hagerstown Community College, the EDC is helping provide a workforce that is qualified in the fields of both machines and computers (and here's a tip for you high school kids looking for an opportunity in a growing field). Starting this semester HCC will be offering its first computer-oriented machining courses.

  • And speaking of schooling, the EDC is helping with a project that takes teachers out of the classroom and puts them in an actual business setting for three days. Then they're given a couple of days to write up lesson plans that will help kids understand what real-world business knowledge is needed and why it's important.

    So when a student asks "Why do I need to learn calculus" teachers can have a better answer than just "Because it's required."

  • I'm as guilty of this as anyone, but the first question usually asked of an EDC is "What new companies have you attracted?"

The truth in any county is that most of the new jobs are created by companies that already exist. The job of the EDC is to make existing companies feel appreciated, so when it comes time to expand they will happily do so locally, instead of seeking greener pastures.

Some years ago I was out at the airport and a manufacturer mildly complained that, even though he was providing new, high-paying jobs, he'd never heard from the local EDC. He didn't necessarily need anything, he just wanted to be acknowledged. Sometimes just a "Hi, how are you, is there anything we can do?" can work wonders. That company, incidentally, is no longer around.

The EDC currently conducts 40-minute interviews with existing businesses and plugs the information into a computer model. Along with establishing personal ties, computer programs can detect variables that warn of possible company shutdowns or layoffs. Potentially, that bad economic news can be warded off if the EDC knows what's happening in advance.

Like most bureaucracies, it's the EDC staffs (present and past) that do the important stuff - the work in the trenches that you never hear about.

This current staff has good chemistry and is working energetically and well. Troxell, more of a work horse than a show horse, is impressive. He is well-trained, he knows Maryland and he has deep roots in the community.

More than any economic development director I've ever talked to, he seems to have a strong grasp of the community and solid plan and purpose for the direction of the local economy and the jobs he wants his office to provide for the people of our county.

Sometimes a fresh face and a new perspective is called for. This isn't one of those times. The commissioners would do well to give him the director's job and let his staff continue with the eminently professional job they've been doing since they became "leaderless" five months ago.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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