Incentives needed to lure business Tax breaks, other reforms necessary to spur economic development.

January 24, 1996

As ATTRACTIVE as Howard County may be, it cannot assume that its existing attributes are enough to entice businesses to locate there. Economic development is highly competitive. Howard not only finds itself vying with its neighbors in Maryland but with locations in other states, indeed in other countries, to get companies to make their home within its boundaries.

Those firms want to know what Howard offers. Good schools. Great. Fine houses. Yeah, but are they affordable to my workers? If not, is there public transit to lower-priced homes? And now that those concerns have been answered, what else can you put on the table?

Howard must answer that last question not only for companies that might land here, but also for businesses already in Howard ** that are being enticed to move elsewhere. That is why the county has agreed to provide 10 percent of a $700,000 state loan that will allow the C. R. Daniels plastics company to stay in Ellicott City. But it wants the ability to do more.

Toward that end, County Executive Charles I. Ecker is asking the legislature to give the county more authority to offer tax breaks. It has long been able to defer taxes for manufacturing firms that come to Howard. Now the county wants similar authority to offer tax breaks to distribution or service firms. Mr. Ecker says only Harford County currently has such authority, which it gained in recent years.

The ability to offer tax breaks is key to economic development, in Howard as well as the state. Though Mr. Ecker is expected to propose a property tax increase this year to meet the service demands of a growing population, future increases may be avoided if the county can lure more revenue-producing industries.

Mr. Ecker says the county is not doing badly with economic development. There hasn't been a lot of new construction, but the commercial vacancy rate was cut from 25 percent to 10 percent in three years. Still, the county saw the percentage of its tax revenue that comes from businesses drop from 24 percent in 1988 to less than 19 percent last year. It also saw the Coca-Cola Co. postpone ambitious expansion plans that would have brought an additional 500 jobs to the county. Mr. Ecker says Howard County must stay aggressive when it comes to economic development. He's right.

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