Public-private effort sought for Balto. Co.

November 21, 1994|By Pat Gilbert | Pat Gilbert,Sun Staff Writer

Hoping to reverse a long-term decline in Baltimore County's job base and compete with surrounding jurisdictions for business, incoming County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III says he wants to turn economic development over to a new joint venture between local government and the private sector.

He also wants to make it easier for new projects to start and called creating jobs the main goal of his administration.

"We need to do away with the perception that Baltimore County is not a friendly place for business," he said. "We need to give business and people a reason to want to make the county their home."

No longer the place of choice for businesses looking to relocate in the region, Baltimore County has suffered a net loss of more than 10,000 jobs since 1990 and has lost businesses to surrounding counties.

Part of the decline was a result of the recession, but those familiar with development issues say the county also lacked an aggressive policy aimed at recruiting business.

In the past two years, under E. Neil Jacobs, director of the county's Department of Economic Development, the county began a turnaround and was able to attract several major projects. They included a $37 million distribution center being developed by Time Warner Inc.

But the long-term figures show that employment in the county dropped from a high of 396,228 jobs in 1990 to a low of 385,446 in 1992, according to the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

Economic development became a central issue in the campaign that saw Mr. Ruppersberger, a Democrat, defeat incumbent Republican Roger B. Hayden. Mr. Ruppersberger, who will take office Dec. 5, promised changes in the county's approach.

"More jobs and more economic growth means more revenue for the county to use to pay for basic services its citizens deserve," Mr. Ruppersberger said.

While the county will continue to fund economic development at the current level of just less than $1 million a year, Mr. Ruppersberger said he wants the private sector to contribute money and workers to the county Department of Economic Development "so we can get qualified people without an increase in cost to the taxpayer."

He said the change technically doesn't require County Council approval, but he will seek the council's advice anyway. He also said he has not decided about the department's current employees. Mr. Jacobs, whose efforts were well-regarded by the business community, resigned Friday -- a move he announced long before the election.

The plan to involve the private sector drew good notices from business and state development officials, who said the approach has been successful in Anne Arundel and Howard counties and other jurisdictions.

"Mr. Ruppersberger is to be commended for that approach," said James D. Fielder, who is in charge of business development at the Maryland Department of Economic Development and who was credited with many successes during a three-year stint as Harford County's development director.

"It is in the best interest of the private sector to be an equal partner, because healthy economic growth impacts on the quality of life for its employees," said Barbara B. Lucas, vice president for public affairs at Black & Decker Corp.

But involving the private sector doesn't mean delegating authority on policy, said Newton B. Fowler III, executive director of the Ruppersberger transition team. That will come from the county executive, he said.

Officials say they hope the new arrangement will produce a more aggressive marketing campaign for the county.

"Mr. Ruppersberger and the economic development people are going to have to take some risks for the county to catch up with its neighbors," said Wayne M. Skinner, executive director of the Towson Development Corp.

Patricia W. Winter, executive director of the Dundalk and Eastern Baltimore Area Chamber of Commerce, noted that 15 years ago, the county had plenty of vacant land and didn't need as much effort to attract business. But as the county became more urbanized, she said, there were fewer "green field" locations.

"Businesses then looked further out to other jurisdictions, where those governments and private sectors were willing to jump through hoops to get those businesses there," she said.

Mr. Fowler said the new administration's restructuring of government will include a hard look at agencies involved in the development review process.

That process, in place for more than two years, gives communities substantial input into development plans. But as a result of that and various regulations, it can take a developer as long as a year to work his way through the bureaucracy before starting a project.

Developers and their attorneys long have complained about the delay. Ms. Winter said it has, to some extent, been a barrier to economic development. At the very least, she said, it has fostered the impression that the county is anti-business.

On the other side, many community organizations complain that the process still has too many loopholes developers can exploit.

Mr. Ruppersberger said he remains dedicated to achieving a balance between economic growth on one hand and concerns about the environment, quality of life and preservation of the rural northern area on the other.

"I'm not going to compromise those principles under which I operated as a councilman for nine years now that I'm county executive," Mr. Ruppersberger said.

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