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Brien Poffenberger: Washington County, We Mean Business!

February 14, 2012|By BRIEN POFFENBERGER

Last Thursday, our business community took a significant step in reshaping the county’s image in the minds of Annapolis lawmakers. For seven years, working in concert with our own delegation, a local coalition has worked to position Washington County as an ideal place to do business. Last week in Annapolis, we put that message on display with a forum to show legislators what we really wanted to say: Washington County: We Mean Business!

In what could only be described as an economic development trade show, members of the coalition hosted more than a dozen businesses from the width and breadth of our community. From cyber security to high-tech manufacturing to local wine and cheese, we projected a new brand.

Through the middle of the 20th century, Hagerstown — and by extension Washington County — was one of Maryland’s virtually independent city-states. Because of our robust transportation infrastructure and strong manufacturing base, we were all but immune to the political pressures — and expectations — in Annapolis.
 
Like it or not, those days are over. In the last 60 years, our political independence has eroded, and so now, as with other counties across Maryland, our economic success is increasingly dependent on Annapolis. We can no longer build our own infrastructure or maintain our own roads. Economic opportunities are as likely to filter through the state as they are to come from other sources. And Maryland’s regulatory environment forces even the most independent-minded of us to keep a watchful eye on new laws coming from the State Capitol. Because our success is increasingly dependent on what happens in Annapolis, it is increasingly important that lawmakers have a realistic view of who we are. The problem is many do not.

As if viewing us through the wrong end of a telescope, Washington County is a distant and foreign place to many statewide opinion leaders. Some think of us only as a far-off county they drive though on family vacation. Or worse, they do not think of us at all. Even when they get it right, they often get it wrong. Those who see us as rural and bucolic can miss the cutting-edge manufacturing at Volvo Powertrain and Cinetic Landis. They see past our airport, our hospital and our education system. They don’t know about the cluster of marketing firms, graphic designers and photography studios springing up in downtown Hagerstown. Because they don’t know us, they fail to see the state’s role in economic development, farm-friendly policies, sensible land use, water and sewer infrastructure, and balanced environmental regulations. That needs to change, and Thursday’s event was a good start.

The event — dubbed “Washington County: We Mean Business!” — projected an image of our community as we think of ourselves. Washington County is reinventing itself as a hub of cyber security and high-tech manufacturing, of education and culture, of economic opportunity and the creative services. Here, we told state lawmakers, we have a ready work force and a lower cost of doing business. We have a blend of traditional and high-tech manufacturing, and the work force development to support both. We strike the right balance of government oversight and free enterprise. And our quality of life is the envy of our neighbors to the east.  

Businesses, hard hit by the economy, understand that in today’s economic environment, success requires that state officials understand our community. If lawmakers don’t know who we are, they can’t know what we need.  Successful counties have figured this out. Those that haven’t will continue to struggle.

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

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