Representatives of the Howard County business community have become increasingly frustrated with the county government's delay in hiring an economic development administrator, a position that has gone vacant for seven months.
"We frankly want a higher profile for the economic development office," said Richard Pettingill, president of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce. "We have been deeply concerned as a chamber with respect to filling that position and we desperately need to have a very aggressive economic development office."
Pettingill said the county, among the state's most prosperous, has not had to worry about attracting new businesses and helping existing ones to expand in the past. The Columbia-based Rouse Co. has handled most of those functions for years. But it is doubtful that Rouse would be able to continue in that role and the county government will have to shoulder more responsibility if it is to compete with aggressive marketing by neighboring counties, he said.
Howard's business community -- which believes economic development is the number one issue in the county, despite much attention on managing growth -- asserts that the office is doing only the bare minimum to serve business' needs because it is operating with only one development official.
They are wondering how much ground the county has lost to its competitors in the six months that the top job has gone unfilled. Another post was left vacant when an official resigned four weeks ago.
One respected business executive, who asked to remain anonymous, said the administration of County Executive Elizabeth Bobo has placed too little emphasis on economic development and that "very few people are pleased with the economic development policies of Howard County."
The issue of business confidence in county government came up at this week at a debate between Bobo and her Republican opponent in the Nov. 6 election, Charles Ecker. Bobo said those who say Howard isn't a good place to do business will spread what she feels is a falsity that will hurt the county nonetheless.
The economic development office has operated without an administrator since Barry Bogage resigned last March.
Kirk Fancher, a business liaison in the office, was named acting administrator temporarily, but he has since resumed his former role and for the last four weeks has been the only official in county government trying to attract new businesses to the county and help existing ones grow. A second business liaison is due to start next week.
"The daily routine and function of this office has not changed from what it was under Barry Bogage," Fancher said. "Businesses, developers and brokers seeking to locate in the county are being well served."
The business leaders praised Fancher for helping to keep the office functioning, but said that the administrator's post needs to be filled to put the operation in full throttle.
Bobo said her team of administrators has narrowed a list of candidates to four or five finalists from more than 100 applications. They soon will make a decision after checking details and backgrounds, she said.
"We realize it has taken a long time to fill the job. We just want to feel quite confident that we've found the right person, someone who is going to stay around for a while," said Bobo, adding that Bogage's resignation came as a surprise.
But Diane Meyer, chairwoman of the county's Economic Development Advisory Council, said her organization has waited patiently for Bobo to fill the post to give the office more visibility.
Meyer is also concerned about the county's plans next week to move the economic development office from its location down the hall from the county executive's office to a single-family house outside the government complex in Ellicott City. The move is being done to provide more room for the county's expanding law department.
"In the business community, there is a lot of sentiment that the person who's the economic development director has the ear of the county executive. I don't think this is going to make it any easier to get the county executive's ear," Meyer said.
Bobo said the move will not impede the economic development office's operation. "It's just going to take a minute to get to my office instead of five seconds," she said.