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HCC has a biotech vision

December 13, 2008|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

HAGERSTOWN -- The way Hagerstown Community College sees it, Washington County stands on the edge of opportunities that could transform its economic future.

Very soon, HCC President Guy Altieri said in a new report, the community must begin discussions about education, economic development and 21st-century bioscience-related jobs.

"In particular, this paper presents the case for Washington County embracing a unique and timely set of opportunities that would greatly assist in making high skill/high wage bioscience or biotechnology employment a significant part of the local economy," Altieri wrote in the report.

Already, much is under way to train local students and to attract young biotech companies, but much more is possible because of what's happening around us, the report said.

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That includes:

o Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to spend $1.1 billion on Maryand's bioscience industry over the next 10 years.

o Word that having started nearly $1 billion in projects, officials of the giant biotech hub at Fort Detrick in Frederick County, Md., want to build economic and educational bridges to Washington County.

o Signs that the so-called I-270 Technology Corridor, bustling with hundreds of biotech companies along the interstate from Montgomery County to Frederick, could extend west along Interstate 70 into Washington County as suburban land becomes more expensive.

"Taken together, these developments point to the potential for bioscience business development in Washington County that would enable the county to capitalize on its existing assets," the report said.

Because of steps that HCC and Washington County Public Schools already have taken, "I don't think there's any question our community will be involved in biotech," Altieri said in an interview. "The question is the magnitude."

That, he said, is why HCC has started talking to community leaders about its report, "Education, Economic Development and 21st Century Jobs: The Case for Planned Growth of Biosciences in Washington County."

Communitywide discussion is needed, Altieri said, and HCC sees its role as being the catalyst.

Economic reality

In Washington County's not-too-distant past, this was the land of Fairchild Industries, Mack Trucks and other manufacturers that kept generations employed at premium wages, strong fuel for our economy.

Many families were railroaders, others farmers who worked the wide expanses of pasture and field.

Now, Fairchild is gone, Mack -- now Volvo -- isn't as large nor are railroading or farming. The county has seen growth in such service-based industries as transportation, the financing sector, health care, and leisure and hospitality.

"While providing employment for thousands of workers, jobs in these sectors are typically less well paid than manufacturing jobs, which have experienced a 19.5 percent decrease in the county between 2001 and 2007," HCC's report said.

Enter biotechnology, also known as bioscience and life sciences.

Tough to define, its many applications range "from developing diagnostic tests that spot cancers, to designing bugs that will clean Brownfield contaminants," the report said.

By 2006, there were 42,910 biotech companies and agencies nationwide -- a 15.7 percent increase in five years, according to the report. In the same time, employment in that field grew nearly 6 percent, to 1.3 million workers.

A $1.1 billion plan

This past summer, O'Malley announced his Bio 2020 Initiative.

The $1.1 billion expenditure -- up for approval by the Maryland General Assembly this coming year and beyond -- calls for creation of the Maryland Biotechnology Center to showcase and support the industry.

The plan also would double the state's biotech investment tax credit in fiscal 2010 and again by 2013, requiring companies to invest almost $50 million in return, according to a press release.

O'Malley also wants to invest $60 million to draw $120 million in private and federal investment, and grow Maryland's business incubator network by 50 percent. Additional money would help expand existing incubators and build others.

Maryland is among the nation's top states in technology economy preparedness, according to the latest Milken Institute report on technology and science.

Massachusetts still is tops, but "closing in fast is second-place Maryland, which moved up from fourth place" four years ago, said the institute, an independent economic think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif.

The Milken report, which looks at technology and science assets that can be leveraged to promote economic development, praises Maryland for such initiatives as its Sunny Day Fund.

This kind of financial help has attracted businesses, "while new products like Maryland's NanoCenter have linked research facilities with industry know-how to promote cutting-edge product development," Milken said.

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