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Local economy picks up

February 18, 2004|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

Washington County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook gave a mostly upbeat report on the local economy Tuesday.

"Washington County had a solid 2003," Snook told a group of business people during his annual State of the County address to the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

Snook said there's a $2.8 million surplus in the county coffers and the county has had an unemployment rate at or below the state average throughout the year.

The county government has been posting surpluses for nine years, Snook said.

The county gained 919 new jobs in 2003 and 2,500 over a three-year period, he said.

The county's Economic Development Commission had 184 new clients in 2003, and worked on projects with 164 existing Washington County companies, Snook said.

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"That's almost one new project every day," Snook said. "We see that continuing into 2004."

The year brought $177 million in new private investment in the county, he said, for a three-year total of $400 million. He said more than 800,000 square feet of new industrial space is under construction.

Thus far in 2004, he noted, new projects include new distribution centers for Lowe's and Home Depot. The Home Depot project, in the former TruServ warehouse in Halfway, is slated to bring more than 230 jobs to the county over two years.

Snook also touted the county's fiscal picture, saying the county had achieved an A1, A+ bond rating. The premium rating represented a savings of thousands of dollars on bond issues, he said.

Washington County "was the only county in the state to get a positive outlook on bond ratings" from Moody's Investor Service, he said.

The county government's surpluses are being held in reserve to make up for anticipated cuts in state funding, Snook said. Nevertheless, he said the county is reducing its utility debt by an average of 7 percent per year.

Snook said the county is making provisions for growth in the county's school system, and that much of the cost of new school construction would be paid through the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which charges fees to developers to help cover infrastructure costs associated with new construction.

He said a task force studying the part of the county's Comprehensive Plan dealing with growth control in rural areas should report its findings in May.

Snook said the county's runway extension project at Hagerstown Regional Airport is tied to future economic development. He said bids for the first phase of construction should be awarded in mid-March, and he anticipates groundbreaking on April 20.

Challenges for the county lie in what action the state will take to reduce its own budget, Snook said. "We will have to monitor that very closely," and make adjustments as needed, he said.

Asked about cooperation between the county government and the city of Hagerstown, Commissioners Vice President William Wivell said there are ongoing "behind the scenes" discussions between the governments on several issues, including water and sewer, tax set-offs and others.

"We all make mistakes," Wivell said. "Maybe the lawsuit was the wrong thing to do. But we have to move ahead."

The county last year sued over Hagerstown's annexation policy, saying it violated a prior agreement between the governments.

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