Hurdles face high-tech development

August 21, 1994|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,Sun Staff Writer

LiteTrends, a $6.6 million company, is the kind of business that Carroll officials want more of.

The high-tech company, which moved to the county three years ago, produces no harmful waste, uses skilled labor and -- if it can find $2 million in private backing -- has potential for growth.

With four full-time employees, the company turns tofu into seasoned meat substitute that owners Ed Walker and Andrew J. Wilks hope will become a staple of college dining halls and corporate cafeterias.

The company's 6,000-square-foot operation on Progress Way in Eldersburg combines New Age and high tech, reflecting its owners' interests. The Ricoh copy machine is next to the refrigerator in the kitchen, and all the food -- even pizza -- is topped with tofu.

Mr. Walker and Mr. Wilks, devotees of transcendental meditation, say their operation makes sense because they believe in their product.

The company uses a process the pair refined in the University of Maryland College Park's "incubator" for young high-tech companies.

"People don't generally consider food technology 'high-tech,' but is," says Mr. Walker, 39, who began experimenting with tofu while supervising an upstate New York retreat for the transcendental meditation movement, which shuns red meat. "We do have a state-of-the-art process, and we keep our process secret."

County officials broadly define high-tech as any business that is clean and does not pollute, but fewer than a dozen county companies have high-tech, state-of-the-art production processes.

Business leaders in Carroll and around the state say the county's relative lack of roads, telecommunications and high-tech know-how will make it difficult to attract advanced firms.

LiteTrends wouldn't be in the county except for an obscure U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant designed for rural and inner-city zones where new business development is scarce.

"I don't believe high-tech business will locate in Carroll County," says Helen Utz, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce for the past dozen years. "It won't happen until we have the infrastructure -- particularly in telecommunications -- in place."

While many county leaders see high technology as a prime goal, some other officials and business leaders worry that both residential development and other kinds of industrial building could be hampered by that focus.

County planner Helen Spinelli has argued in public hearings against changing the industrial zoning of the Raincliffe Center in Sykesville to residential, in part because she sees it as a good site for a high-tech, low-polluting business.

But the property's developer, David Moxley, says high-tech firms aren't interested in the area, and some business experts agree. Some say that seemingly minor drawbacks -- for example, Sykesville's dearth of trendy restaurants -- can discourage the upper-middle-class people who work for and run high-tech companies.

Ms. Spinelli did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

"When Helen says we could have high tech here, she's being wishful," Mr. Moxley says. "These companies want to move to a place like Columbia, not Carroll County. They want to be near universities, and they want to be near other similar companies that are going to provide them with resources."

He sees a cycle of sorts. High-tech businesses are attracted to sites where a cluster of similar businesses is established, but such a grouping needs a critical mass of high-tech companies to thrive.

Some business leaders say that part of Carroll's problem is that its top officials are relatively unfamiliar with high-technology issues. They say the county's failure to understand the needs of a novel high-tech business caused an agreement for Freewing Aerial Robotics Co. to move to Carroll to fall through.

"You have to have a certain understanding and experience to deal with high-tech companies," says Richard Frank, director of the UM College Park high-tech "incubator" that produced Freewing. "A situation like that with Freewing can give the county a bad name. But we haven't had time to figure out what the repercussions will be."

Carroll's top economic development official, Robert A. "Max" Bair, says he isn't worried. The county has sufficient expertise to handle high-tech business, he says.

"We have a working knowledge" of the "information highway" and related advances in telecommunications, Mr. Bair says. "We're not experts, but we know where the experts are. We've attended seminars."

Mr. Bair and his economic development office are at odds with county planners over the best way to attract high-tech business. Planners favor creating employment campuses exclusively for high-tech firms and supporting services. Mr. Bair and other economic development officials argue that restricting the commercial use of such campuses will keep them empty.

Others say the difference in philosophies doesn't matter; employment campuses won't bring high-tech business to Carroll roads will.

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