Talk of managing growth sets off alarms

The Economy

July 22, 1996|By JAY HANCOCK

GOV. PARRIS N. GLENDENING has been talking lately about "attacking" sprawl and about the need to "manage" growth and "focus" development efforts.

The business community has reacted like a coon hound sniffing a mongoose.

It's not sure whether the object of its interest will turn tail and shuffle into a hole or lunge at its carotids.

The only transitive verbs that business people usually like to see paired with government are "cut" and "subsidize."

Any hint that government wants to "focus" the flow of commerce more narrowly than what's allowed by the laws of nature and economics is met with alert interest.

Glendening wants to conserve old neighborhoods and business districts, revitalize decayed ones and use existing roads, sewers and schools instead of building new ones.

But he also wants to make Maryland "pro-business" and create jobs to invigorate its economy and tax base.

That might be what the management consultants call a dissonance of goals.

Most of the new jobs Maryland manages to attract these days, and they're precious few, come to the suburbs.

The difficult fact is that the open, leafy, low-taxed burbs are Maryland's chief asset for attracting companies.

If focusing growth on developed areas means restricting undeveloped ones, potential Maryland employers will focus their dollars on other states, some business leaders fear.

But nobody knows yet what it means. Business people aren't even sure whether to take the governor seriously.

"It sounds like so many trial balloons," said Robert O. C. "Rocky" Worcester, president of Maryland Business for Responsive Government.

"You can do this kind of thing in the summertime, when only a fraction of the population is around and only a fraction of that fraction is listening."

People who do take the governor at his word yield him the benefit of the doubt -- so far. State policy wonks are supposed to be working out the fine print of a growth-management plan, but it won't be made public for weeks or months.

"Conceptually, the idea of maximizing the utility of infrastructure already in place and already paid for makes good sense," said Champe C. McCulloch, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

"The devil, of course, is in the details."

Glendening himself is not unaware of the quivering antennae. "I know that when a governor starts talking about coping with growth, people get nervous," he told the Maryland Municipal League last month.

One reason is that, for some, his rhetoric recalls the infamous "2020" plan of the previous administration, which was deemed high-handed state encroachment on municipal authority.

Glendening has said publicly several times that he's not going to erect a state zoning board.

What will he do?

The flow of commerce always seeks its own level. To alter it, the governor can build dikes and levees, or he can dig new channels.

It's the dikes -- constraints on where development can happen -- that worry business.

"There's nothing wrong with having growth occur in areas where growth can be accommodated," said Gary Blucher, president of the Maryland Builders Association.

"If, however, the areas are so restricted -- just one or two isolated areas -- that will stagnate the building industry and stagnate the economy."

But experience has shown that the dikes are the best tools for controlling growth. Positive inducements such as tax incentives, development loans and relaxed environmental standards -- the channels -- are less so.

And it's a legitimate question whether the sluggish economy will generate the fiscal resources sufficient to lure business where the governor wants to lure it.

Theoretically, Glendening can help the urban cores and the economy simultaneously, said Richard Clinch, program manager for the Maryland Business Research Partnership, an economic development study group at the University of Baltimore that is partly state-financed.

"If growth management is done correctly, it doesn't necessarily have to negatively impact overall levels of economic growth," he said. "The problem comes if you're going to strictly regulate: 'You shall be here and shan't be there.' But if you provide positive incentives that doesn't necessarily hurt economic growth at all."

Meanwhile, business looks askance.

"This state more than most has to be very careful that it doesn't do anything to dampen its very anemic economic position," Worcester said.

Pub Date: 7/22/96

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