Cold shoulder leads to empty hands

February 26, 1993

As if enough lessons hadn't been learned about the value of a good economic development office, along comes J.P. Bolduc, president of W.R. Grace & Co., to drive home the point.

Mr. Bolduc, speaking at a meeting of the Baltimore Chemical Association last week, recalled the inhospitable attitudes of the state and Howard County back in 1989, when his company was looking for a place to relocate its headquarters.

Howard County seemed very much a logical site because the company already owned about 100 acres at its Washington Research Center near Columbia.

But the powers that be in Howard County at the time didn't warm to the idea, and W.R. Grace has since built its headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla.

"Just let me say the politics of trying to make (relocating to Howard County) happen would have been too long and too difficult," Mr. Bolduc told the gathering of local business people. He was gracious enough not to name the offending parties.

In another time, Mr. Bolduc's comments might be written off as water under the bridge. A scant five years ago or so, if one corporation didn't want to locate in Howard, another would, it seemed.

The times changed. Howard County's loss now becomes Boca's, or someplace else's, gain. And in these tighter-margin times, the lost jobs and tax revenues resulting from an economic development gaffe comes at a severe cost. A W.R. Grace headquarters would have employed 500 people here.

In 1989, under then-County Executive Elizabeth Bobo, economic development was government's stepchild. Officials saw little reason to court business. It's appropriate to assume that any number of other opportunities were also missed.

It is gratifying that things have changed under County Executive Charles Ecker, who has elevated the status of economic development in the hope that the county government's emphasis on economic development will remain constant no matter who is in power.

The W.R. Grace incident, as related by its president, shouldn't simply be viewed as yesterday's news, however. Leaders such as County Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass should pay heed the next time they want to throw roadblocks in front of corporations such as Coca-Cola.

When it comes to government's ability to attract business, a good reputation can be damaged overnight.

3' A bad reputation lingers on and on.

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