Counties battle each other for jobs 'It's rough,' says Dorchester official

March 19, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

With the passion of sibling rivalry, Maryland counties are scrapping for new business just as states have done during tough economic times.

Rewriting state law for new industry, organizing discount leases, extending easy credit Maryland counties of all sizes are taking decisive steps to triumph in cross-border competition for economic advantage and growth.

Howard County has legislation pending before the General Assembly that would allow the county to extend tax credits and provide seed money for a capital pool to lure new industry like multimillion-dollar programs in larger counties. So do Washington and Charles counties.

And Anne Arundel is pushing legislation allowing franchise restaurants more than one liquor license, something allowed in several other jurisdictions.

Some counties are enlisting existing businesses in the contest.

Last month, Howard County officials used a Japanese manufacturing firm Shimadzu Scientific Instruments Inc. as liaison to a German company scouting several Baltimore area counties for a new plant. No decision has been reached.

The economically depressed Eastern Shore counties have abruptly ended joint development efforts to serve their own financial interests.

"It's rough out there," said Betty B. Causey, director of the Dorchester County Economic Development Department. "When we find a company that wants to expand, we cut off all ties with other counties."

The feuding and economic parochialism is born of financial necessity as tax revenues shrink along with the political will to create new ones. But economic development officials warn that intercounty skirmishes and secrecy hamper regional recruitment efforts, possibly costing Maryland's economy hundreds of jobs.

Negotiations faltered

A Pittsburgh window manufacturer wanted to bring 100 jobs to Anne Arundel before the county privatized its economic development program in July 1993. But when lease negotiations faltered, no other Maryland county was notified and the manufacturer looked elsewhere.

One Baltimore businessman who heard the deal was unraveling said Anne Arundel officials wouldn't even tell him the company's name.

In 1994, Baltimore County backed a $6 million development bond issue to lure Direct Marketing Associates and its 250 jobs from Baltimore City. A year earlier, county officials promised $1 million to refurbish a Woodlawn building to keep the Health Care Financing Administration from moving its 3,000 jobs to a site near Camden Yards. The feuding brought criticism that rich counties were preying on poor urban centers for business.

"There has to be some kind of agreed-upon neutrality," said George F. Cormeny, president of the Maryland Industrial Development Association. "It's natural for counties to be protective. But they ought to look at strengths, what they see their economies becoming, and then sit down and communicate."

Said James T. Brady, secretary of the state Department of Business and Economic Development: "There has been more black-hole jurisdictional phobia in Maryland than in any other state."

Flap between legislators

Take a recent flap between Howard and Anne Arundel state legislators.

To accommodate CarMax, a used-car company that promises 300 new jobs, Howard legislators proposed lifting in Howard County only the "blue law" prohibiting Sunday auto sales. That sent Anne Arundel legislators scurrying in opposition, sounding like protectionists as they argued that it would threaten their county's dealerships. Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, a Brooklyn Park Democrat, describes the issue as a "hornet's nest" and rejects the company's threat of bypassing North Laurel for Virginia if the bill doesn't pass.

"I want to make sure Anne Arundel dealers have a level playing field," Mr. Jimeno said.

Howard County looks at it differently. "We see this issue as a pure and simple restraint of trade," said Richard W. Story, executive director of Howard County's Economic Development Authority.

The Senate passed the bill that now awaits House consideration.

On the Eastern Shore, four counties share a $3 million loan fund established by the federal government for areas hard hit by defense cuts. But tough times have made cooperation difficult.

Plant sized up

In May, officials from Nabisco traveled to Cambridge in Dorchester County to size up a vacant Chun King food-processing plant that employed 175 people before closing last year.

Ms. Causey, the economic development director for Dorchester County, began a stealthy recruiting effort. No calls or letters went to neighboring counties, who had been partners in recruitment.

It worked. In August, Nabisco bought the plant to make A1 Steak Sauce and Grey Poupon mustard. She clinched the 100 jobs by securing state money for a Cambridge rail spur to accommodate Nabisco shipments.

"Recruiting is very expensive and time-consuming," Ms. Causey said. "And it's very competitive."

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