From Family Farm to Selling County

COMMENT

May 01, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

When Jim Fielder was leaving his job as Harford County economic development director last month, he decided to phone a few friends and associates and let them know.

Right after he'd completed the pre-dawn milking chores on his father's Creswell dairy farm.

Whether milking the family herd or pitching a Fortune 500 company on locating in Harford County, the days have been long -- but rewarding -- since he took the county position three years ago.

His new position of assistant secretary for business development in state government in Annapolis won't cut back on his hours, either; it's just going to be a longer daily commute.

In his brief tenure, Mr. Fielder has revitalized Harford's development program by aggressively luring a list of established, well-known companies to put down facilities here, creating jobs and expanding the county's tax base.

Harford County was recently ranked as one of the top 10 economic development areas in the United States by Site Selection magazine and American Demographics called it one of the "hottest" growth jurisdictions. Now, when there's word of a major company sniffing about Maryland for a new site, Harford County is virtually certain to be on the firm's short list because of its string of successes.

Of course, the successes are not consecutive. Even the best economic development program is much like prospecting for oil: The memorable gushers make up for the larger numbers of forgotten dry holes.

The ability to keep plugging away, to focus on the most promising prospects, to decide which get "fast track" royal treatment and which do not -- these are the skills and judgments that have marked Mr. Fielder's success.

He would be the first to emphasize that you have to have a credible product to sell to potential corporate residents.

Harford's available land, strategic location near major transportation arteries, affordable housing and cooperative government are attractive features. A supportive business community is also essential to land new business neighbors.

But someone has be the persuader, the promoter, the fisherman putting out the lures and then reeling in the catch. That's what economic development offices do.

It may seem surprising that Mr. Fielder, a Havre de Grace native, had no official economic development credentials on his resume when he got the highly controversial appointment from County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann.

He had been a real estate agent, a budget analyst, a college official, a partner in an auto parts concern, a radio station owner. All this after getting an agriculture degree at the University of Maryland at College Park to prepare for running the family farm, and adding a doctorate in education administration.

Some seriously questioned his lack of experience initially, especially after Mrs. Rehrmann's first choice for economic development director was found to have padded and misrepresented her qualifications.

But it was Mr. Fielder's real estate background and his former ownership of a Bel Air radio station that caused the most controversial sparks to fly.

He'd had close ties in real estate sales with former state Delegate William H. Cox Jr., whose realty dealings had come in for stiff criticism. That relationship raised questions about his independence in promoting Harford development.

And then came the disclosure that he had more than $200,000 in liens against him for unpaid business loans, liens which were never mentioned during his appointment and confirmation process.

It turned out the bank loans were made to the people who bought Bel Air radio station WHRF-AM from Mr. Fielder; he had, with wife Patricia, merely guaranteed repayment of those loans. Critics of the appointment questioned his lack of full disclosure in applying for the sensitive job and asked the county ethics commission for a ruling.

Weathering that political storm, Mr. Fielder announced within two weeks of his hiring the decision of Frito-Lay to build a $20 million snack manufacturing and distribution plant in Aberdeen.

Clorox, General Electric, MCI Communications, Procter & Gamble, and others opened new facilities in Harford County. Gleneagles clothing manufacturer and J. M. Smucker foods took over and reopened vacant plants.

All told, well over a half-billion dollars in commercial development has landed in Harford County under Mr. Fielder's tenure.

Much of the future commercial development over the next few years can be traced to the groundwork Mr. Fielder has done, even though it will be credited to his successors. And Mr. Fielder, in turn, gives full credit to his predecessor, William Sivertsen, for erecting the framework of Harford's economic development expansion in the 1990s.

Mr. Fielder's departure will force the county government to think about the skimpy budget of Harford's development office (compared to neighboring jurisdictions) and to focus on the shortage of land zoned for future commercial development.

And to begin the search for his successor.

But Jim Fielder will still be working in Harford, helping to run the annual county Farm Fair and occasionally lending a hand in the milking barn.

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

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