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Washington County EDC plan suggest marketing small towns

February 16, 2013|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com
  • This picture shows the exterior of Inn BoonsBoro on the square in Boonsboro. The inn is owned by romance novelist Nora Roberts and her husband, Bruce Wilder.
File photo

A strategic plan commissioned for the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission suggests a greater effort to market the small towns and rural areas of the county, an idea Hancock Mayor Daniel A. Murphy welcomes.

“I certainly would agree. They need to become familiar with us on the fringes of the county,” Murphy said recently. “It’s not the Hagerstown Economic Development Commission.”

Communication between the county and Hancock has improved in recent years, but Murphy said he could remember a time not so long ago when it seemed that the town at the western edge of the county was mostly forgotten.

“We had real concerns when we were trying to market the Stanley Fulton building” after the Fleetwood Travel Trailer plant closed there in 2005, Murphy said.

In 2011, Evolve Composites signed a deal to move into the building, which is owned by the town, to produce lightweight precast concrete products.

“We made that happen pretty much by ourselves,” Murphy said of marketing the site.

The Economic Development Commission and county still have to adopt the plan, prepared by Urbanomics Inc. for the EDC, the Economic Development Strategic Planning Task Force and the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation Inc. (CHIEF). They also must prioritize the recommendations.

Washington County Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham said after the strategic plan was unveiled in January that she was pleased it included plans for the towns.

Washington County has eight incorporated towns — Boonsboro, Clear Spring, Funkstown, Hancock, Keedysville, Sharpsburg, Smithsburg and Williamsport.

“All eight towns seek to strengthen their property tax bases, to revitalize their downtowns, and to improve their quality of life,” the report said. “Most are capable of supporting small manufacturing and technology-oriented service businesses and should be part of countywide business attraction, retention and small business development initiatives.”

And, the report noted, “These small towns and the surrounding rural/agricultural countryside are significant social, visual and economic assets in Washington County.”


What towns have to offer

The Williamsport area is the most industrialized of the towns, home to Certain Teed, DOT Foods, Potomac Edison regional headquarters and the Bowman Group, according to the plan. Boonsboro, Smithsburg and Hancock also have small to mid-size manufacturers in or around their boundaries, it said.

“Most are capable of supporting small manufacturing and technology-oriented service businesses and should be part of a countywide business attraction, retention, and small business development initiatives,” the report suggested.

These towns also serve the surrounding farm communities and tourism is a significant economic contributor for some, thanks to the C&O Canal, Potomac River, Western Maryland Rail Trail and — for Sharpsburg — its proximity to Antietam National Battlefield, the report said.

“Boonsboro, originally a mill town and farm community, has become a tourist destination thanks to popular romance novelist Nora Roberts, who is investing in revitalizing the downtown area and who lives in nearby Keedysville,” the report said.

Keedysville, Sharpsburg and Clear Spring are “small primarily residential farm communities that may prefer to stay that way,” the report noted. It said Funkstown “is literally an extension of Hagerstown, but has a collection of antique, collectibles and crafts shops and galleries that make it a budding tourist destination.”

“Every town, even the ones that aren’t incorporated, has a festival” and those draw crowds of visitors, Smithsburg Mayor Mildred “Mickey” Myers said.

One step the county recently took that could boost agri-tourism was approving amended language to the zoning ordinance to allow farm wineries in areas zoned for agriculture. Those wineries would not require site development plans or zoning permit approval provided they meet certain other criteria, including that at least 2 acres of grapevines be growing on site.

Loudoun County in Virginia has a thriving winery tourism trade with about 30 farm wineries, it was noted during discussions at the Feb. 12 commissioners meeting on amending the ordinance.


Targeted marketing

The county’s strategic plan calls for targeted marketing and infrastructure and site development programs for the towns to attract and support new businesses, the report said.

“I personally think that each town is unique,” Myers said, and therefore, their economic development needs will be different.

There is little parking or space for a large business development in Smithsburg, although there is space outside the town’s borders, she said.

The Economic Development Commission could hold an annual town forum to discuss the economic development needs of small towns, according to one suggestion in the strategic plan.

“The more dialogue you have the better,” Williamsport Mayor James G. McCleaf II said.

That would be a good way for the towns to make the EDC aware of what commercial and industrial space they have available and for the commission to make them aware of what kind of sites prospective businesses are seeking, he said.

“I think that would be a good avenue to do it,” said Myers, particularly if the public were involved.

For a small town such as hers, devoting personnel and other resources to full-time economic development duties is difficult, she said.

Boonsboro has had its own economic development commission of volunteers and a council liaison for more than two decades, Town Manager Debra Smith said.

“One of the big things they have taken on, which is a very positive development, is a business networking group,” Smith said. Every other month it brings together business people to hear a speaker on topics of interest to small businesses, she said.

The commission also focuses on improvements to the town, and on issues such as tourism and a business directory, Smith said.

Williamsport had an economic development director for about a year, but the position was eliminated due to budgetary reasons that include cuts in state aid for highways, police protection and other state funding, McCleaf said.

The towns should “periodically review their planning and zoning policies, land development regulations, and permitting procedures to ensure that they are business friendly,” the report said.


‘Hideous stories’

Another part of the report stated that Washington County is at a competitive disadvantage to Pennsylvania and West Virginia counties due to “burdensome land development regulations, including time required to obtain final approvals and onerous environmental mitigation requirements” that can derail economic development projects. Maryland has more rigorous Chesapeake Bay regulations than its neighbors, the report said.

“The county is our permitting board,” Hancock’s Murphy said.

He said the county commissioners soon would be in Hancock for a town meeting and “they’ll probably hear this again — hideous stories about the permitting process.”

McCleaf placed most of the blame for regulatory roadblocks on the state rather than the county.

“Maryland stinks when it comes to bringing in new business. The regulations. The rules,” McCleaf said. “We cannot compete on I-81 with Pennsylvania and Virginia unless something happens in Annapolis.”

McCleaf also suggested the EDC look to organizations such as the Franklin County (Pa.) Area Development Corporation for ideas on how it helps facilitate economic development.

“They’re willing to go to bat and make things happen,” McCleaf said.

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