Brien Poffenberger: Washington County is part of Maryland's next generation of prosperity

November 02, 2011|By BRIEN POFFENBERGER
  • Brien Poffenberger is president of the Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce
Brien Poffenberger is president of the Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce

Last week, the governor proclaimed Economic Development Week and prompted a statewide conversation about job creation in Maryland. Though landing a big employer makes for splashy PR, stats show that real job creation comes from helping existing businesses expand. And while both strategies have merit, both also offer some very difficult challenges in the current economic climate. Often missing in the conversation is a view of the long game.

Scarcity of resources can pit one economic development strategy against the other.  Access to capital, a shrinking customer base, and flagging consumer confidence have crippled the ability for existing companies to add new workers. “Growth” to many businesses right now simply means not losing ground. At the same time, attracting new businesses zaps resources as communities compete fiercely for the few companies looking to relocate.

While continuing to execute on both strategies, Washington County should expand its definition of economic development and take full advantage of what promises to be our unique position in a post-recession Maryland — a position that will drive the state’s next generation of prosperity.

The “Big Seven” jurisdictions along the I-95 corridor currently drive the state’s economic engine.
The numbers are stark and explain much of the political reality in Maryland.  Half of the state’s economy is in and around Baltimore. Another 40 percent comes from the Washington suburbs. That means that the Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland, and Western Maryland combined make up only about 10 percent of the state’s economy.  

A tier of emerging counties, however, will drive the state’s growth beyond the recession, and we are one of them. Counties like Washington — and Frederick and Charles — hold great promise in business development and job creation. Washington County holds greater unfulfilled potential — and thus opportunities — than do those areas of the state already built out and economically mature.

We are not the only ones who see opportunities in Washington County.

Before the recession, downstate professionals like engineers, lawyers and accountants set up small offices in Washington County. Think of them as scouting parties, probing the market for opportunities. They found those opportunities and helped fuel the construction boom of the last decade. They are gone now, but they will come back, and when they do, they will help fuel the next stage of growth in Washington County.

We know that future is coming, and we know what it will demand when it gets here.  Businesses need roads and bridges to deliver their products and services. They need an educational system to teach skills that workers need and sharpen the ones they already have. Companies will move here because of our quality of life, our access to markets, and our cost of living, and they will expect local government to have a plan that takes all those into account.  

To be ready, then, we have two challenges. First, we need to make sure that state policy makers and opinion leaders get the message that we already know: Communities like ours will drive prosperity in Maryland after the recession, and the state’s economic future depends on our ability to meet that opportunity. Second, this inevitability should inform our own vision of the community we want to become. Our planning, our infrastructure, and our resources should be allocated not only to meet today’s needs but also to solve tomorrow’s problems.  We should decide as a community the balance between innovation and tradition, and we should figure out how to use both to our advantage.

Successful companies market for today and innovate for tomorrow, and Washington County should think the same way.  If we bring that vision to our public policy and to our community investment, we will have a winning strategy through the economic recovery and beyond.  

Brien Poffenberger is president of the Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

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