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Making do with less

Panel discusses Western Maryland's economic future in light of federal cuts.

Panel discusses Western Maryland's economic future in light of federal cuts.

March 11, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

While one multimillion-dollar federal funding source designed to spur the Western Maryland economy could be cut drastically by next year, other prospects look good for Washington County and points west, federal and state officials said Monday in Hagerstown.

The news comes as Western Maryland counties continue to face below-par income levels and state and local budgets are more strained than they have been in years.

Maryland's new secretaries of Business and Economic Development and the Department of Planning along with the federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission were invited to a conference by U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md.. The conference was held to brief local business people and politicians.

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"We're probably going to have less money to deal with, but we'll make up for that" with personal effort on the part of the governor's office, said Business and Economic Development Secretary Aris Melissaratos during the conference at the Comfort Suites.

In addition to the state's budget woes - Maryland expects to bring in $1.3 billion less than its projected spending next year - the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal office that partners with 13 states to boost local economies, faces a drastic budget cut of its own.

Anne B. Pope, the federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, said the budget for her office would be sliced in half from $66 million to $33 million if the president's current proposal makes it through Congress.

Last year, Washington, Garrett and Allegany counties received $7.7 million for highway and nonhighway projects, Pope said. While she did not want to guess how deep the cuts would be locally, she said "whatever resources the ARC gets, we're going to maximize them ... We'll wait and see when the FY '04 (budget) comes."

The commission has been helping to bring a north-south highway project to Allegany or Garrett county as well as more telecommunications projects.

While the future for the ARC is questionable, other initiatives are moving forward, state officials said.

During the conference, Washington County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook asked for continued support on three projects: Widening of Interstate 81, expansion of Hagerstown Regional Airport and construction of the University System of Maryland's Hagerstown education center.

The university project "is central to our higher education," Snook said.

Melissaratos told Snook that higher education is his No. 1 priority because it can spur investment from valuable technology sectors. The Hagerstown center "is extremely important," he said.

Department of Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott said her department would continue to support growth with technical functions such as providing state-of-the-art maps and demographic information.

Her department also will continue to supervise the Smart Growth office, which was started by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening and will be continued by Gov. Robert Ehrlich, she said.

"Smart growth makes sense," Scott said, and it is an important tool in both business development and environmental protection.

After the conference, Melissaratos said there are business prospects for Washington County on the horizon, but he declined to say which firms were considering locating here.

He said there are three "major national firms" considering locating near the Interstate 81-Interstate 70 intersection, but he would not divulge their identities "because they're competitive in nature," he said.

According to Department of Business and Economic Development information, Washington County's average household income was $44,450 in 2002, $9,080 less than the average Maryland household last year.

Allegany and Garrett county households earned $33,300 and $34,700, both about $20,000 lower than the state average of $53,530.

Melissaratos said after the conference that while incomes are lower in Western Maryland than average, "You all are making great strides." But to continue pushing up incomes, "what you gotta do is provide strong job opportunities."

Melissaratos and Bartlett said businesses must increasing take into consideration the fact that global competition has an effect locally.

"Many small businesses don't know how to sell internationally," Bartlett said after the conference. "It's a shrinking world."

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