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Here's to minding our own business(es)

August 03, 2011|By TAMELA BAKER

Know how sometimes you get a song stuck in your head and you just can’t seem to shake it?

That “Isn’t it ironic?” tune from a few years back has been playing in mine ever since a local Republican lawmaker complained about a solar energy plant planned for some state property near the prisons.

Maryland Republicans have for years maintained — and not without reason — that this state’s taxes and fees have discouraged economic development and cost us jobs. In fact, a couple of them made this whole jobs-business quandary a centerpiece of their election campaigns just last fall.

The message, in short, was that the state charges businesses too much money.

But while jobs are what this county needs more than just about anything else, the legislators who railed loudest about them last fall have been a whole lot quieter about them since. It’s almost as if they’ve been preoccupied with railing about some other issue all summer.

So when somebody finally proposed a project that might generate a few jobs and a little investment — and would keep 125 construction workers busy building something besides excess housing for a while, with Del. Leroy E. Myers Jr. having already extracted the company’s promise to seek local laborers — state Sen. Christopher B. Shank’s attempt to delay approval was a bit startling.

He wasn’t trying to derail it, he said, although a delay could have had precisely that effect: Federal incentives for the plant expire at the end of the year, and company officials had said from the start that losing those credits would kill the project.

Granted, the deal was brokered in part by Shank’s former political rival, but surely that was completely irrelevant, bygones being bygones and all that.

So what was the official black fly in his Chardonnay?

The state wasn’t charging a business enough money.

Who would’ve thought?

Jobs and business are certainly on the minds of other local officials, with the county commissioners pushing the Economic Development Commission to set a numerical goal for job growth by this time next year, and Hagerstown Councilwoman Ashley Haywood voicing what a lot of Hagerstonians have believed for a long time — that downtown redevelopment is stymied by low-income people moving in from other places so they can get social services.

On the first issue, EDC Director Tim Troxell was absolutely right to point out that factors beyond the county’s control directly affect local jobs. If the financial fiasco of the past few years isn’t evidence enough, consider the fiasco of the past few weeks as the stock market posted loss after loss while Congress squabbled over the debt ceiling. The net impact on everybody from those losses alone probably can’t be calculated.

The same factors affect the second issue. The city has, as Haywood noted, carefully put a number of pieces in place for success downtown. And a few years ago, a small group of developers set out to make revitalization a reality. They had the right idea — transforming old apartments into modern condominiums young professionals could buy, bringing fresh energy (not to mention consumers) downtown. Momentum seemed to be growing. Several buildings were renovated and more projects were on the drawing board. Had that momentum continued, the problems Haywood alluded to might have taken care of themselves.

But then the recession hit. Suddenly, the promises of new enterprises and new jobs were a wistful memory.

Was EDC responsible for that? No. Was the City of Hagerstown? No. But does that mean there’s nothing we can do? Not necessarily.

It does mean, however, that from legislator to landlord, everybody needs to get on the same page. More past initiatives than you can count failed because all the necessary parties wouldn’t get on board. Personal and political agendas became lethal.

The goal we need to set might not be so much focusing on a number as cultivating a clear vision of what we’ve got going for us and what we want to achieve. What kinds of businesses do we want to attract and what do we need to do to get them? What do we want downtown Hagerstown to look like? And what solutions are available for the people who need help? Believe it or not, there are folks in this community who are already studying these issues and have ideas.

So here’s the question: Do we want more jobs and a better community? Good. Now what are we willing to do to get them?

Tamela Baker is a former reporter and editor for The Herald-Mail.

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