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Biotech wave could make splash here

December 14, 2008|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Maryland's top economic development official foresees biotech companies soon will begin to pop up in Washington County in a big way.

"I do, if we define 'soon' as in the three- to five-year period," said David W. Edgerley, secretary of the state Department of Business & Economic Development.

Washington County is "certainly one of the strategic counties to watch in the economic high-growth, quality community sectors," Edgerley said Wednesday.

Frederick County is another.

That neighboring county will be Washington County's rival as biotech companies move out of the Interstate 270 Technology Corridor toward less expensive land to the west, officials said.

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Both counties are scrambling toward an economic development plum - the region's first "accelerator" - a second-stage incubator that would nurture existing young biotech companies as they expand and would attract others.

Officials in Washington County also are looking at large tracts, particularly east of Hagerstown, where they might build an industrial park for biotech companies, said John F. Barr, president of the Washington County Commissioners.

Bringing biotech firms here is "a vital interest of this community," Barr said. "I think most of the business leaders feel Hagerstown and Washington County are a viable option.

"We've got land available, infrastructure available and, of course, we're always looking for higher paying jobs. And that industry obviously offers that with a bright future."

Close and less expensive

Montgomery County is king of Maryland's prime biotech realm, which stretches from the suburban Washington, D.C., area north to Baltimore.

The area contains 84 percent of the state's more than 370 biotechs. Montgomery County alone has 60 percent of them; Frederick and part of Washington County have 16 percent.

"Montgomery, Frederick County, right down to D.C., that whole area is ranked like No. 2 (in the nation) for the number of biotech firms concentrated in one area," said Timothy Troxell, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

"They've always kind of been down there because of Johns Hopkins, and NIH (National Institutes of Health) and all those federal labs," Troxell said.

Large research universities around cities draw them, too, he said.

But as suburban D.C. has become more crowded, another economic development truism has emerged. Some biotechs have started setting up second operations where land is less expensive, but not far away.

That's the case with MedImmune, the big biotech company that is headquartered in Montgomery County. In 1999, it opened a biomanufacturing plant in Frederick that employs 230 people and is building a larger, $250 million plant next door to that facility.

That was the trend that Troxell had hoped to cash in on for Washington County.

"What we thought our sort of calling card was ... we're close to that and yet, we're not near as expensive," he said.

Reaping the benefits

Before Edgerley became head of the state's Department of Business & Economic Development, he was director of Montgomery County's Department of Economic Development.

As such, he said, he saw Montgomery County become "what I call the donor county" as biotech employees moved to build houses in less expensive areas and their companies began to follow.

"The acorn doesn't fall far from the tree," Edgerley said. "As startups grow into mature companies and their work force extends into greater distances, they start companies closer to their (employees') houses. We saw that with the great company MedImmune."

Now, he said, he's seeing a trend that should begin to benefit Washington County in a big way in as few as three years.

"Guess what? There will be employees from MedImmune that will move to Washington County and start companies," Edgerley said.

"... The factors that you have going for you are extraordinary - transportation, high quality work force, good leadership, proximity, educational system," he said.

But there are drawbacks, too.

"I think your biggest issues are going to be available work force, (and) available land that has the right zoning with infrastructure - water and sewer," said Richard Griffin, director of the City of Frederick's Department of Economic Development.

"I would say those things are the single most important. The value of land, in our case, in ... Frederick, you're paying additional taxes to be here, but yet we have a number of good companies. I believe it's proximity to those other companies" that counts more, Griffin said.

Washington County has other hurdles, too, according to Richard Phoebus, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation, known as CHIEF.

"We are missing a number of elements that biotech firms like. For instance, a research university," Phoebus said. "They like to be close to a research university."

The University System of Maryland at Hagerstown has no labs and is not set up to be a research facility, Phoebus said.

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