Restrictive EDC might not be solution

May 06, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND |

In the end, it probably doesn’t matter much who is on the board of your friendly neighborhood Economic Development Commission. This is said as a matter of observation, not disrespect. Commission members and staff have come and gone, but in the post-Citicorp era in Washington County, it’s hard to deny that our neighboring counties have gotten the better of us at almost every turn.

So perhaps the deck really is stacked against us from a business standpoint. To that point, the county is wisely talking to local companies and assembling a database that will put a face on these “state regulations” that so often are blamed for our economic malaise. That’s good. Let’s find out, specifically, what regulations are costing us, and then lean on our state lawmakers to get them changed.

If they talk to the same people I talk to, however, they might discover the county’s own inspection inconsistencies and fee schedules are a lot more onerous than the state’s corporate tax rate, so we’ll see how serious they are about change.

The commissioners also say they’re concerned about a lack of attention to small business, which in part might be a lasting overreaction to the long-ago loss of Fairchild and downsizing of Mack. Seems to me that we’ve landed a decent number of small businesses of late — the problem is that local small businesses are closing as fast as they’re opening, which might be part of the commissioners’ point.

So now we’ve ditched our EDC director and are giving an outside consultant a try, while at the same time frowning with concern (in this, our “EDC Spring”) about how our commission is being infiltrated by, well, outsiders.

In April, the County Commissioners acted on these concerns, voting 4-1 (John Barr, like myself, being in the minority) to limit the number of nonresidents sitting on the board to three out of 12.

These brigands will also find it more difficult to dominate the executive committee, whose membership has been expanded from three to six, according to press accounts, to “safeguard against that panel being dominated by out-of-county members.”

There, that ought to do it. Expect the new wave of manufacturing plants to start arriving at any time.

The voices that call for local membership do have a point when they are discussing planning boards, zoning commissions and historic-review panels. The people who live here need to be the ones to decide how and where we grow and what we value in terms of roads, views, commerce and heritage.

A suburban developer might not share our values or understand the needs of our people.

But almost by definition, an EDC requires a working knowledge that crosses political boundaries. EDCs are not insular institutions and their mission is not self-contained within a jurisdiction.

Just the opposite, in fact. Living elsewhere and working here could almost be viewed as an asset, because a member might have firsthand knowledge of what our competing counties are doing and how well it’s working. The law for a planning commissioner is to be familiar with one’s own turf; the law for an EDC member is to be familiar with our neighbors’ turf.

Self-reliance isn’t a bad thing, but in Washington County there has been a historic tendency to view insiders as good and outsiders as bad, whether it’s an EDC member, a public works director or a superintendent of schools.

Economic development is about coordination of services to make life easy for new industry. It is also about networking. Who do you know? How many contacts do you have? How many states have you visited and how many power lunches have you had with movers and shakers across the country, and even abroad?

In an EDC, a member (and the board as a whole) should be judged in part by the breadth of the net he or she casts. There’s no premium for going to bed every night in a city-side subdivision and driving three miles to work every morning.

And there is certainly no premium on an EDC packed with people who live, work, eat, play and socialize with each other day after day, year after year. An EDC should be a model of diversity, reaching its tentacles into as many commercial pots as possible.

And restricting membership to a small band of people who, stellar as they might be, are encapsulated in a small community is not a recipe for attracting new business into an area that desperately needs it.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is

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