Did The County Go Too Far For Green?

COMMENT

February 14, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

Are 50 new jobs worth $1 million?

That's the question some people are asking about the revised plans of wholesale grocery distributor B. Green & Co. to consolidate its warehouses in Perryman.

The longtime Baltimore company got a $100,000 loan from Harford County and $900,000 from the state when it agreed last summer to a 20-year lease on 500,000 square feet of storage facilities at the former Channel Home Centers site. B. Green planned $5 million in renovations and additions on the 80-acre complex.

The consolidation of six Baltimore area warehouses was to bring nearly 400 jobs to Harford County, the biggest economic development coup of the year.

The decision was the result of what Benjamin Green, executive vice president of the family-owned firm, called Harford's "overall pro-business attitude." He also talked of future growth opportunities at the Perryman site, sweet music to local development ears.

Then the shoes began to drop.

B. Green sold off its military grocery division to a Minnesota company in December, but said it intended to keep the civilian wholesale business.

Last month, the Lansdowne-based firm pulled the plug on that civilian division, which served 250 supermarkets with sales of more than $300 million a year. With that sale to a Richmond firm, B. Green eliminated 300, mostly union-wage, jobs.

The local company explained that it had to abandon the wholesale business because it was not big enough to compete, in the face of industrywide consolidation.

Did that revelation burst upon B. Green only after it secured the Harford location?

Wasn't it clear a year and a half earlier when the firm lost a third of its grocery distribution business after the Shoppers Food Warehouse supermarket chain switched to another supplier?

Despite the sell-off, B. Green is going ahead with construction at Perryman, next to the new Clorox facility. At latest count, B. Green will employ about 50 people as warehousemen, hoping to lease some of the excess storage capacity to other food companies.

But the drastic job reduction raises a question of whether Harford's fast-track development approval express is in danger of derailing with the rush to get less than firm commitments from companies. Did the county agree too soon to the deal? (B. Green, it should be noted, was openly comparing offers from several Baltimore metro locations for its move.)

At least one economic analyst in Harford worries that the county may not be taking full advantage of its considerable attractions during a transient window of opportunity.

The easy access to Interstate 95, the East Coast's lifeline, and the uncongested, relatively cheap land may well change with time, as development restrictions arise and strategic land is no longer available. A more aggressive (and expensive) marketing campaign, and more demanding requirements by county government, might turn up more manufacturing jobs.

Certainly, in these times of retrenchment and plant closings, something is better than nothing.

As James D. Fielder, Harford County's economic development chief, has said: "Any time you create new jobs and employment opportunities, it strengthens the community fabric."

The county has done well in wooing some national-brand names in recent years. Nearly $500 million in commercial investment has come to Harford over the past three years or so, making it one of the hottest, for the moment, development areas in the United States.

But nearly all of the investment has been in warehouse and distributing facilities, with heavy property tax implications but limited job creation. Even the Clorox Co. plant, which will eventually employ 100 workers, will serve as a major distribution center.

Among the top dozen construction projects in Harford County last year, only the $75 million Clorox bleach project is a production facility.

One thing is certain: Business location decisions today can change at the last minute, despite all the preparation, economic incentives and stroking that takes place by the suitor locality.

Companies may spend a lot of money themselves on proposed sites, and then drop the idea for no apparent reason. You can't count on them following through simply because they already have an investment in the site.

"We never lost any jobs because we never had them to begin with," noted Mr. Fielder of B. Green's cutbacks. That's true, and yet the county has gotten less than it counted on for its investment.

Harford never had the Coca-Cola syrup plant, either. But the feeling was strong that the soft drink producer would end up at Riverside Business Park.

Coca-Cola USA spent about $3 million on site studies, design and options on the 30-acre location, before letting the option expire Dec. 31. At stake was a $60 million facility that would have meant about 150 jobs. The syrup division still hasn't announced where it will build.

Bata Land Corp. is actively marketing the Riverside property, and another prospect is thought to be close to making an offer, though it is not expected to have the same manufacturing impact as "the real thing."

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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