After nearly a year of waiting, county business leaders on Tuesday will get from County Executive Charles I. Ecker what they couldn't getfrom his predecessor, M. Elizabeth Bobo: an economic development director.
"The last administration had four years to get things going. Chuck's had two months," said Richard H. Pettingill, president of the county Chamber of Commerce.
Pettingill and other business leaders failed in their efforts to get Bobo to appoint a new director after Barry Bogage resigned from the job in March. Last fall, shortly before her defeat at the polls, they expressed frustration about the vacancy and about Bobo's decisionto move the office from the county office building to Rogers Avenue.
"I think it's a giant and absolutely essential first step . . . in developing an effective economic development program," T. James Truby, president of the Economic Forum, said of the appointment. The forum is a coalition of business and civic groups.
Ecker will name the new director at a news conference 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Bogage resigned to do promotion for the Welsh government, making him the third director to leave office under Bobo.
When asked for statistics about county commerce, Bogage more than once pointed out that his "office," unlike county "departments," did not have the staff to keep and disseminate such information.
Kirk Fancher, who has served almost a year as acting economic development director, said the office now hasa staff of six, up from five when he arrived. His budget for the 1991 fiscal year was $678,200.
Following Bobo administration plans, the office moved shortly after the November election to a single-family home on Rogers Avenue "at the bottom of the hill behind the police station," Fancher said.
"Even though they had an acting director who is a talented person, big decisions were always put on hold," saidDiana Meyer, chairwoman of the county Economic Advisory Council.
The council has advised Ecker that the office's director have direct access to the executive, and not have to go through two other administrators as Fancher did. As a result, the county's 20-year general plan for development and other major policies were formulated with little or no input from the office, she said.
Despite Ecker's interest in promoting economic development, he probably will have to put further budgetary constraints on the office under its new leadership, saidBeverly Wilhide, Ecker's administrative assistant.
One of the newdirector's tasks will be to find a more publicly accessible home forthe office, Wilhide said, but any such move will not be done on thisyear's strapped budget.
Wilhide said the new director's first job, however, will be to get acquainted with the business community, then prepare a business development plan that will retain existing county businesses and attract others to the county.
All of that can be accomplished with new leadership, Wilhide said, even if the office's budget is not expanded.
Truby, who is vice president of Crystal Hill Investments, said his own commercial and industrial development industry had been working to encourage existing businesses to stay in the county buildings they construct and encourage other companies to occupy new buildings.
"But that doesn't substitute for the kind of full-time comprehensive effort that's required" to keep the county competitive with its neighboring counties. "Evidently there have been some lost opportunities within the last few years," Truby said, referring to the expansion of the Ryland Building Co.'s panel operations into Carroll County and General Electric Co.'s decision to move its regional distribution center to Harford County.
The new county administration and County Council have sent a much more positive signal to businesses, he said, especially in its early shelving of the county's cap on building permits.
Naming a new economic development director, Truby said, will "complement and reinforce the message the county executive is already putting out, contrary to the prevailing view outside the county, is that Howard County really is a good place to do business, that Howard County is welcoming new business."