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Growth - the best of times and the worst of times

February 08, 2005

Fleetwood Travel Trailers of Maryland Inc., which saw a 19 percent decline in trailer sales in the third quarter of 2004, announced last week that it is closing its Hancock plant because it has "no room for expansion."

See? This is why I never succeed in business. I would have leapt to the illogical presumption that if sales were down by a fifth, there probably would be no need to expand.

My dad was the accountant at Fleetwood (then Prowler) many moons ago, and he would take a stab at explaining business to me. But it always ended up sounding like one of those Archie Campbell/Roy Clark barbershop conversations on "Hee Haw."

"See down there, Timmy? We've got a whole lot full of trailers."

"Oh, that's good."

"No, that's bad. It means we're building more than we're selling."

"Oh, that's bad."

"No, that's good. It's a sign of increased productivity."

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"Oh, that's good."

"No, that's bad. It means we'll probably have to lay off some workers."

"Oh, that's bad."

"No, that's good. The stock market loves it when you lay off workers and your share price goes up."

"Oh, that's good."

"No, that's bad. When the share price goes up the dividend yield goes down."

"Oh, that's bad."

"No that's good. A high dividend yield can be a sign of a troubled company."

"Oh, that's bad."

"No, that's good. If the dividend is high and the stock is low, it's called a 'buying opportunity' and you can get a whole lot and wait for the price to increase so you can cash in."

"Oh, that's good."

"No, that's bad. If you make a big profit on stocks you have to pay a big capital gains tax to the government."

"Oh, that's bad."

"No, that's good. The government gives you a tax credit on mortgage interest which allows people to buy more Fleetwood-brand manufactured housing and we'll increase our production."

"Oh, that's good."

"No, that's bad. Because WE DON'T HAVE ANY ROOM TO EXPAND."

Or something along those lines. Anyway, I think it was about that point in time when I made up my mind to become a journalist so I could just comment on the weirdness without participating in it.

And there was a lot of other weirdness last week, in which the Washington County Commissioners presented their State of the County address and assured everyone that growth is entirely under control.

So that's not traffic you're stuck in out on Robinwood Drive, it's something else. And the rising bacteria count in Boonsboro-area wells isn't caused by more housing draining the water supply, it's caused by that little scamp the Fecal Fairy. And the schools are ordering all those portable classrooms not because they've outgrown the existing buildings, but to strengthen the teachers' vocal cords by making them shout over the drone of window-unit air conditioners.

Come to think of it, maybe this is why Fleetwood thinks it will have to expand - because two-thirds of the public school system's classes are going to be taught in travel trailers by the end of the decade. Not to put too fine a point on it, but when Commissioner John "The School Teacher's Friend" Munson says schools need to be a higher priority, schools probably need to be a higher priority.

And the landfill isn't full, and Hagerstown isn't running out of sewer-treatment capacity and out-of-county developers aren't gushing in like pork chops through Homer Simpson.

Yes, growth is completely under control. So move along, nothing to see here, folks.

At least we'll have the best emergency-services radio communications money can buy, after the commissioners were told a radio system upgrade would cost $20 million. Twenty million? Are they insane? That's a third of the runway extension. That's half of the sewer debt. That's $150 for every man, woman and child in all of Washington County. Who are they trying to communicate with, the Pioneer spacecraft? When did Washington County become NASA?

I have no doubt the system needs to be upgraded. But I have equally no doubt it can be done for a lot less than $20 million, a price that includes a new communications tower every 10 feet. Jeepers, just buy everyone in the entire system a Nextel walkie-talkie cell phone and save $19.8 million.

Twenty million. The Washington County Commissioners may not see growth coming, but someone sure sees them coming.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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