Brien Poffenberger: How to keep 'business friendly' focused on business

December 14, 2011|By BRIEN POFFENBERGER

Sometimes in Annapolis, a phrase is so overused — and used to mean different things to different people — that after a while, it means nothing at all. And so it has become with the term “business friendly.”  

Maryland politicians use “business friendly” as both a sword and a shield. One side complains about its absence to criticize policy as hurtful to economic recovery, and the other side includes a “business friendly” talking point as political window-dressing to fend off attacks. Worse, “business friendly” has taken its place among political code words and is used reflexively to define “for and against,” “friend and foe,” “good and bad.” This kind of thinking presumes that the arguments have no merit and debate is not worth having. Worse still, the term’s overexposure has taken away a useful rhetorical shorthand for opinion leaders who see the role of government as increasing markets and removing the burdens that slow our economy.  

In Washington County, “business friendly” means policies that allow free enterprise to create opportunities and solve problems. For company owners, that means a return on investment to be sure, but the rest of us enjoy a return as well.  “Business friendly” means more jobs, safer roads and better schools. It means more libraries, more parks, and more resources for our community.

It also means a business community empowered to find answers. Downtown Hagerstown will ultimately be revived, for example, by private enterprise. The preservation of farmland is in direct proportion to the business success of family farms.  Fort Ritchie redevelopment, universal broadband and the success of Mount Aetna Farms all depend on the private sector. And yet, the private sector depends on government policy that creates an environment for success. That is a hard message to deliver, however, when the very words we use are not understood by the policymakers who most need to hear them.  

Luckily, business leaders at the Chamber of Commerce in Hagerstown are not the only ones who see this as a problem.  The Greater Baltimore Committee (, a group similar in mission if not in scope to the Greater Hagers-town Committee, advocates for building a vibrant business community throughout Maryland. In a 2010 publication, the Greater Baltimore Committee distilled the debate about Maryland’s business climate into eight tenets that collectively constitute a business-friendly approach to government policy:

• Government should see business as a partner.

• Business needs a highly educated work force.

• Regulation should be streamlined, stable and predictable.

• Tax structure should be fair and competitive.

• Business’ cost of doing business should be competitive.

• Business needs superior transportation infrastructure with reliable funding.

• The state should invest strategically in business growth.

• Maryland’s marketing strategy should be aggressive, coordinated, long-term and well-funded.

Recognizing that the term “business friendly” has lost its meaning, the Greater Baltimore Committee recommends using an outline like this, perhaps tailored to Washington County, to craft a message and steer public policy toward creating a climate where businesses can thrive. Following this advice — replacing “business friendly” with specific outcomes — avoids the baggage of an overused term and forces us to focus on how the policy debate can directly improve the environment for business in Washington County.

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

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