County's New Economic Plan Encourages Business Leaders

Plan Heartensbusiness Leaders

September 22, 1991|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

After Dyan Brasington announced the county's ambitious proposed economic development plan last week, she had her work cut out for her.

"The first thing I'm going to do is take a look at my present budgetand reduce it," said Brasington, the county's economic development administrator. County Executive Charles I. Ecker has asked her to makemore than $20,000 in cuts in preparation for yet another manifestation of "Ecker-nomics," as Brasington calls it.

The prospect of further cuts is worrisome to county business leaders who believe the economic development program had been neglected under the administration of former county executive M. Elizabeth Bobo.

Brasington's office is charged with promoting and steering economic growth. The plan provides a specific strategy.

The office's funding under Bobo's last two budgets hovered below $400,000. Ecker cut the 1991 fiscal year budget to $378,000, not including the tourism and arts councils' budgets. Now Brasington must carve 5 percent from the current $409,010 budget.

"When you've got tough times, you need to work harder on economic development," said Richard H. Pettingill, former Chamber of Commerce president and one author of the proposed 20-year Economic Development Plan for Howard County released Tuesday.

Officials would not estimate how much the recommended programs will cost. The plan's recommendations, which Ecker said he is considering, include creating a venture capital fund to help create and expand businesses, an agricultural center to focus support for county farming, and a direct-mail campaign to attract new business.

Pettingill,who runs the Casey & Associates commercial real estate brokerage office in Columbia, had been openly critical of the Bobo administration's apparent lack of concern for the Economic Development Office.

The new plan -- the first since 1978 -- shows promise, however, becauseit recommends specific steps, not just vague philosophical goals, say Pettingill and others.

"It'll obviously need some money . . . for certain aspects of it, but I think it should be able to go. What itreally needs is some priority and some attention given to it, which I think it will get," said Alton J. Scavo, vice president and associate director of community development for the Rouse Co.

"I'm very pleased that Howard County has looked beyond this current economic problem to the future, instead of just sitting down and twisting its hands and saying 'What am I going to do?'

The Rouse Co. and other commercial developers have suffered from one of the county's most visible economic problems -- 20 to 25 percent office vacancy rates.

One of the less costly recommendations in the plan is for the county to encourage the development of affordable housing. One way is by proposing zoning changes.

"With housing the way it is in Howard County, it's really difficult to get folks into the county," said C. James Pierce, vice president in charge of the Ingram Book Co.'s eastern operations. Pierce employs several hundred entry-level workers at Ingram's distribution center in Jessup.

"Because (employees) can't afford to live in Howard County . . . we basically became a recruiter in Baltimore County, Baltimore City, and Anne Arundel County," Pierce said.

James Truby, president of the county Economic Forum, also praised the affordable housing recommendation because it involves county policy, not county money. The forum is a coalition of business and civic groups.

"There is in this county at the moment very little undeveloped land which is zoned for townhouses and apartments," the most feasible types of affordable development, said Truby, a principal owner of Crystal Hill Investments.

Educating the community about economic development, another recommendation in the plan, can help gain acceptance of such policy changes as increasing housing density, Truby said.

He said he has seen other jurisdictions "where business interests all talk to themselves and convince themselves that economic development is important, but they don't communicate that to the community."

Another of the plan's key objectives is to "provide pro-activenurturing and support" for existing county businesses, including publishing a government procurement list and guiding companies through county regulatory processes.

Past strategies had tended to focus onattracting new businesses.

"I was happy that it (providing support) was first on the list," said developer Jay Winer.

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