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For Washington County, a lesson up north

January 06, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Like a bungee jumper with a weak stomach, the last time Washington County government considered privatizing its economic development operations the county board walked right up to the edge but balked at making that final scary leap. Now another county board is edging toward the cliff, lured in part by the possibility that a private non-profit group could receive contributions in a way county government can't.

So far, thank goodness, none of the commissioners has recommended a consultant study of the issue. But before long they will undoubtedly look at a successful model in nearby Franklin County, Pa., the Franklin County Area Development Corporation. L. Michael Ross, the agency's president, spoke to me last week about how it works.

To hear him tell it, building relationships is just as important as how the authority is structured, so that all involved know that while they may not hear the details on every prospect immediately, they will be brought up to speed at the appropriate time.

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And Ross didn't say it, but his agency has some self-imposed pressure to do well, because 50 percent of its annual budget comes from development activity or loan administration. The corporation not only develops its own industrial parks, Ross said, but provides assistance for the creation of commercial parks as well. It also helps with everything from loans for building expansions to working capital, he said.

In Pennsylvania, Ross explained that most local development organizations are 501-C6 groups, instead of the county-government-based approach Maryland takes. Twenty-five percent of his local funding comes from county government, he said, and the remaining funds from the aforementioned development activities and contributions from other community-based development organizations.

Ross' governing board has 25 members, with membership based in part on geography so that every area of the county is represented. All five chambers of commerce have a seat, as do all the local development groups, he said. And all three county commissioners sit on the board as well.

With a group that large, how do you keep confidential information secret?

Ross said that by building good relationships, officials have gained confidence that they'll know about a project before it's reported in the media.

"We have a seven-member executive committee and over the years, our board has allowed the group to be staff-driven," he said.

"We do reinforce the need for confidentiality, and there's a fairly significant trust factor. When we have a prospect who is looking, we trust the board members enough to bring them into play when we need to," Ross said.

But Ross also said that prospects are told that as a project moves from the looking-around stage to more serious negotiations, the circle of people who need to be involved will grow larger.

Despite that, Ross said that "over the years we've been fortunate to retain confidentiality on most of our projects."

Again and again Ross returned to the need to build those relationships, with everyone from local businesspeople to muncipal officials.

Success depends on "the ability to have everybody engaged on some level, because every project we get involved with affects the whole county and everybody has a role to play."

Has any developer or group tried to get the corporation to favor its agenda?

In his 16 years with the corporation, Ross said there's never been an effort like that.

"I don't want to make it sound like it's all utopia, but everybody's been satisifed with our role," Ross said.

Cooperate for the public good? That sounds almost like an alien concept in Washington County, where the two largest governments traditionally relate to each other like Northern Ireland's Catholics and Protestants, albeit without the bombs and gunfire.

Hagerstown and Washington County have been talking about merging services to save money since the election of Martin L. "Marty" Snook in 1974, but it hasn't happened yet.

And while the city and county prepare for a court battle over sewer policy - another scrap that's been going on in one form or another for 30 years - Franklin County's biggest controversies involve the redesign of Waynesboro's town square and whether a one-mile-long walkway will link the Waynesboro and Wayne Heights malls.

Until all the officials in Washington County can put away their egos long enough to settle some of these problems, recreating an agency like the one Ross heads, in which success depends on multiple layers of cooperation, will remain a fantasy.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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