Fast-tracking in Baltimore County

July 06, 1992

At first blush, the Baltimore County government's decision to expedite the approval process for a major commercial project in White Marsh seems a good news/bad news proposition.

The county announced recently that it will try to speed up its approval of a plan by developer Lawrence Macks to build a 117,000-square-foot structure in White Marsh. Getting the various government agencies to okay such a project usually takes about 18 months, but County Executive Roger B. Hayden says he wants to cut that time by two-thirds as a way to lure companies to Baltimore County. The Macks project will serve as a test of the proposed fast-track process.

Local business leaders, unhappy with now-departed economic development director Kenneth C. Nohe, were wondering if the Hayden administration would ever do anything to spark the county's tepid economy. The fast-tracking experiment shows progress, and that's part of the good news. So is the appointment of Maryland National Bank chief H. Grant Hathaway as chairman of the economic development commission. And while no one will say so on the record, indications are that the Macks project will be a Wal-Mart store. If so, then attention, shoppers! You'll be glad to learn that the nation's No. 1 retail chain achieved its lofty rank by offering the best bargains and service in the industry. The county government will be equally tickled to add a Wal-Mart store to the tax base.

Yet a Wal-Mart in White Marsh could pose some bad news as well. Studies show new Wal-Marts draw 80 percent of their first-year business from existing retailers. Three years after a Wal-Mart opens, local competitors' sales are down 20 to 25 percent. That doesn't bode well for retailers in the busy White Marsh area, including the new BJ's membership warehouse on Belair Road, across the street from the proposed project. Indeed, when it became evident last year that Wal-Mart plans a massive assault on the Maryland retail market, Giant Food chairman Israel Cohen warned his employees of the top chain's imminent arrival and the bite it could take out of Giant's profits.

And if traffic on Belair Road in White Marsh isn't already enough of a nightmare, a Wal-Mart might make driving worse, though county officials are probably counting on the new White Marsh Boulevard to alleviate traffic congestion.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's wait to see how fast-tracking works. Whether or not it produces a White Marsh Wal-Mart might not matter so much as improving the general climate for economic development in Baltimore County.

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