Paying for Mistakes in Freewing Case

COMMENT

June 12, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

For two years, Carroll County operated without an economic development director. Now the county is paying a tremendous price for that failure.

Freewing Aerial Robotics Corp., a young company that wanted to open its manufacturing plant at Westminster's Airport Business Park, is instead now thinking it may have to sue the county government.

fTC The county, which has been desperately seeking to build up its stagnant commercial, industrial and business tax base, stands to lose the best industrial prospect it has had for years.

Something is terribly wrong when a promising business deal devolves into a non-productive exercise of finger-pointing and blame-placing. This whole unfortunate episode reveals the neglect and weaknesses in the county's economic development efforts. The Freewing deal could serve as an object lesson in the consequences of making economic development an afterthought in county government.

The stakes are high. Carroll sits in the middle of a very competitive market. Other Maryland jurisdictions offer attractive locations for business development and expansion. Unless Carroll is willing to invest in the personnel necessary to carry off a coherent and organized economic development effort, the county officials may be doomed to live reruns of this Freewing debacle.

Freewing's inability to locate a proper site for its factory may not be as dire as it appears. In fact, the chances are good that Freewing and the county may reach some type of accommodation, in everyone's best interest.

If Freewing is to begin production in order to meet some of its deadlines, it will need a plant. Meanwhile, the county commissioners don't want this fiasco to become an issue during the coming election and would like to tell the voters they brought this promising venture into the county.

The problem is that the county doesn't have a full-time economic development director, who under most circumstances could act as a facilitator and resolve the outstanding issues that are preventing Freewing from opening its plant. The county is now desperately seeking someone to fill that position.

It didn't have to turn out this way. William Jenne, who had been acting as the county's economic development director in every way but title and pay, wanted the job. However, the commissioners, for inexplicable reasons, decided they could save a few thousand dollars by not having a full-time director. Instead, they added the responsibility of coordinating economic development to the already heavily laden plate of their administrative assistant, Robert A. "Max" Bair.

After serving ably for two years, Mr. Jenne thought he deserved to be given the title and responsibility for economic development. The commissioners declined, and Mr. Jenne left county government to become a commercial lending officer with Taneytown Bank and Trust.

At the moment, county officials and Freewing are expending a great deal of energy without resolving the pressing issue of finding the airplane company a suitable site. If the county had a full-time economic development director, much of the energy that is being used to find fault could be put to better use to solve Freewing's problems.

Without a director, the responsibility for correcting this problem is being passed around. The result is befuddlement on the part of Freewing's executives. At this point in the process, everyone should be on the same wavelength. If they aren't, this project will die.

Some people involved in the process maintain that Freewing's executives have made unreasonable demands on county officials. They cite the company's refusal to sign a lease agreement that contains language covering pollution on the site.

Freewing claims the county is trying make the company responsible for cleaning up pollution that occurred when the site was a recycling center. The county claims that the company wants to avoid responsibility for future pollution it or others may cause.

Precious weeks were lost while this issue was left hanging.

Even if Freewing's executives are making difficult demands on the county, the county's long delays in responding to Freewing proposals -- taking weeks instead of days -- are inexcusable.

Even more inexcusable is the fact that Freewing learned from a reporter at The Sun about the intrusion of its proposed plant into a restricted zone of the county airport. It is not too late to resolve this problem, but there is likely to be a residue of ill will on both sides.

"The situation is much like sour milk. You can put the milk back into the refrigerator and get it cold again, but you will never be able to make it sweet again," one observer said.

Aspects of this project clearly have not been handled in a business-like fashion. That isn't surprising because the lines of responsibility for economic development have not been clear for the past two years. No one person was in charge; no one had authority.

More damaging than losing Freewing would be for Carroll County to get saddled with a reputation as a bad place for business to get government cooperation and assistance.

For a place interested in growing its business sector, nothing could be worse.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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