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If business doesn't perk up, we'll know who to blame

April 22, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

Make no mistake, economic development — or lack of economic development — in Washington County over the next five years will be thick with the fingerprints of former County Commissioner and current EDC board warrior Ron Bowers.

Give Bowers credit for this: Outside of, perhaps, Hagerstown Mayor Robert Bruchey, Bowers is the only public official or quasi public official in Washington County who doesn’t mind having a bull’s-eye sewn squarely to his chest. Shoot away boys, just remember I’m more than capable of returning fire.

Only Bowers would consider being called a hatchet man a compliment.

Sword drawn and reins in teeth, Bowers rode onto the EDC, pointing fingers at the staff and essentially hounding the board’s president out of office. He convinced the commissioners that the EDC suffers from too many outsiders and that the agency was hampered by flawed bylaws.

The latest victim is EDC executive director Tim Troxell, who has long been in Bowers’ sights. Troxell’s sin might be that he’s too nice, and if that’s the worst anyone can say about you, the mirror is your friend.

But Troxell’s fate was probably sealed when Washington County was unable to land the $95 million Norfolk Southern intermodal depot, which will instead call Greencastle, Pa., its home, taunting the rusty ghosts of the old and formerly glorious Hub City just a dozen miles to the south.

The county put on a brave face, saying Norfolk Southern’s location in Greencastle was “a win for the valley,” meaning that Washington County residents are free to drive across the border and apply for a job. They are also free to drive across the border to the south and apply at a sprawling Macy’s facility that chose Martinsburg, W.Va., over Hagerstown.

Either one of these projects likely would likely have discouraged the commissioners from putting Bowers on the scent. And in the harsh light of reality, no EDC executive director can expect to maintain job security after finishing out of the money on two such high-profile projects.

So we add Troxell’s name to the rolls of what has become two decades of melodrama for an office whose soap operas have always seemed to generate more headlines than its results. In the early ’90s, a palace coup failed after word leaked out that some Hagerstown business leaders were angling for an overhaul of the EDC staff. One director, whose name escapes me, was gone after no time at all, following a mysterious traffic mishap. The next director disappeared for a time — maybe with pay maybe without; commissioners stonewalled any investigation.

But being chief of the Washington County Economic Development Commission is not the easiest of jobs. The state business climate, while maybe not the bogeyman it’s sometimes portrayed as being, has some bars that are set higher than in other states. Our local lawmakers might want to ease some of these burdens, but no one listens to them in Annapolis, and even Washington County’s own inspectors are legend for giving developers fits. Education was historically never given proper attention, viewed by much of the public with suspicion if not outright hostility; we’re still trying to make up ground and still paying for the fact that we haven’t completely recovered.

Add to the soup a deep recession and lethargic recovery, and small wonder more companies are moving out than moving in.

But Washington County is not without assets that an EDC should be able to exploit. Transportation still counts for a lot, and so should the intersections of interstates 70 and 81. But right now, that advantage seems to be going to West Virginia and Pennsylvania — companies find the intersection of 70 and 81 and then look for the closest location that’s not in Maryland. Clearly, that needs to change.

We also have an affordability wind at our back. Land and labor is far cheaper than even neighboring Frederick County to the east. Yet even when someone tries to take advantage of our relative remoteness (like Corporate Office Properties Trust at the old Ft. Ritchie) we manage to blow it.

Finally, our natural beauty and rural quality of life should be an asset; but we have to appear to a corporate board to be a living, breathing member of the 21st century. That’s the real danger with treating stadiums, bridges, recycling, rail-trails and just about every other measure of progress with such suspicion. No CEO wants to time-travel back to the middle ages and revisit the Crusades.

So now we’ll see. Most people would agree that theoretically at least, it would have been possible to turn in better performance that Troxell. Now the question for Bowers is, can he?

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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