Smith unveils plans for county economy

Executive candidate seeks interplay among business, education, government

September 24, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

After accepting William Donald Schaefer's endorsement of his county executive bid, James T. Smith Jr. unveiled his economic development plans for Baltimore County, calling for greater cooperation among educators, businesses and the government, and greater use of the county's bond authority to accelerate infrastructure improvements.

Smith plans to unveil a series of "blueprints" in coming weeks in areas such as public safety, education and community revitalization, developed in concert with advisory groups he formed more than a year ago.

The economic development plan was released yesterday with the blessing of Anirban Basu, a prominent local economist and director of RESI, the research and consulting arm of Towson University.

Although Smith, a Democrat, said education, community revitalization and public safety are higher priorities in his campaign, he said the uncertain economy and the worsening state budget picture make a stable economic base all the more important.

"We can't stick our heads in the sand and say this'll be all over when the economy recovers," Smith told a crowd of about 60 supporters on the steps of the old courthouse in Towson. "That is not leadership. ... The next Baltimore County executive must lead in economic development and redevelopment as a means to quality of life."

Smith's opponent, Republican Douglas B. Riley, said the economic blueprint was mostly "feel-good stuff" but said he was concerned that Smith put it before plans for public safety, neighborhood revitalization and education.

"He's doing it backwards," Riley said. "Instead of saying this is what we need for education, this is what we need for public safety, this is what we need for neighborhood renaissance, these things are of lesser importance, and the budget ... no doubt is going to continue to drive Baltimore County policy-making."

Many of the ideas Smith outlined do not require substantial public investment. Smith advocated establishing a work-force development strategy to encourage students to explore careers that will be in demand, emphasizing worker retraining in community colleges, educating businesses about available state and local incentive programs, and using the authority of the county executive's office to steer development into older and underserved communities.

But other ideas will require money at a time when county budgets are expected to be tight. Yesterday, Smith advocated expanding the use of bond money to accelerate capital improvement projects on the books that will have economic development benefits.

Smith said he would continue to pursue the extension of Route 43 between Route 7 and Eastern Boulevard, a project expected to open 600 acres for industrial development, but said he has not studied the capital budget enough to offer other specifics.

During the economic boom of the 1990s, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's administration invested heavily in infrastructure improvements but paid for them largely with tax revenues, thus leaving the county's debt levels low. Smith said he wouldn't want to jeopardize the county's AAA bond rating, but thinks some additional debt spending could be a prudent way to stimulate economic activity.

"I'm interested in projects that have already been considered, already been subject to community input, and I'm looking to see which of those we can accelerate, which would have some ripple effect providing jobs and providing economic activity of their own but also stimulating other economic activity," he said. "I'm looking for a domino effect."

Basu said he agreed that debt spending could be an important tool but said that citizens need to have confidence that their leaders are using money appropriately and not overdoing it.

"Jim Smith has an awfully steady hand," Basu said. "I'm confident he can see us through."

Schaefer joined Smith and Basu yesterday to announce his endorsement of Smith for executive. He said the race will be a tough one but that Smith has earned the job.

"He's exactly the kind of public servant the state and county need," Schaefer said. "He knows about people, he knows how government works and is grounded in the principles that are so important in government today."

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