Education is No. 1 for Melissaratos

Cabinet: Aris Melissaratos starts with the Ehrlich administration's chief areas of concern as he settles into direction of the Department of Business and Economic Development.

January 25, 2003|By Bill Atkinson | Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

Aris Melissaratos' corner office on the 23rd floor of Redwood Towers downtown was bare and lonely.

No artwork or diplomas on the walls. No pictures of grandchildren on the desk. Not even stacks of paper in the "to do" box.

"This is my 36th hour on the job," said Melissaratos, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s newly appointed head of the Department of Business and Economic Development.

Melissaratos is not worried about trappings, there are bigger issues commanding his time: helping form a vision that will guide the state's economy for the next four years.

While the blueprints are still being developed, Melissaratos, 59, speaks in broad terms of the Ehrlich administration's principal areas of concern. Right now, the words sound much like those of the previous administration: higher education, technology, biotechnology, bolstering the image of Maryland's business climate among out-of-state companies.

Maryland's business community is certain that the first Republican administration in nearly four decades will be significantly different even as it confronts some of the same problems: high taxes, regulatory red tape, expensive labor and job creation.

Guiding Melissaratos, though, is a conviction that economic development begins in the classroom.

"My first premise in anything that I do is education," said Melissaratos, a former Westinghouse Electric Corp. executive. "The priority has to go to education. That is where the intellectual property gets generated, that is where the work force gets trained and becomes available. I think that we have got a phenomenal university system."

Despite having the image of being a high-tax place that is pro-labor, the state has numerous advantages that are attractive to companies considering moving to or expanding their operations in Maryland, Melissaratos believes.

"What's our sales pitch? Our education system, our intelligent work force, the fact that we are close to global centers of power in Washington. This is an incredible state," he said.

A way to win business is to do more than business executives expect, Melissaratos said. "Go out of your way to be responsive, eliminate the bureaucracy and red tape."

Melissaratos said Maryland's union-friendly reputation remains a sensitive issue with companies looking to operate in Maryland, but he doesn't see it as an impediment.

"In the minds of corporate committees that do site selection, it is probably one of the top items on the check list," Melissaratos said. "Does it hurt us? Probably not."

Melissaratos wants to bring manufacturing jobs to Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore, two areas that are struggling with high unemployment.

"They are economically depressed," Melissaratos said. "We need to find the right kind of industry that wants to locate there, that fits the work force that is there. Western Maryland is big on tourism, but tourism alone doesn't do it."

He believes, however, that Maryland's future lies in technology and biotechnology.

"As much as we would like to bring manufacturing jobs here, this is a high-tech state," Melissaratos said. "One of the pluses in favor of manufacturing is that high-tech brings traditional manufacturing as well."

Columbia-based Corvis Corp. and Ciena Corp. of Linthicum, both fiber-optics equipment makers, "brought more life to our local manufacturing entities than any industry ever" when their businesses were booming in the late 1990s, he said.

Melissaratos said he wants to find ways to help fund entrepreneurs.

He believes that "incubators" - programs designed to start and develop new companies - are important to the future of Maryland's economy.

"In order to take an idea from intellectual property to commercialization, you need to support the entrepreneur, you need to complement the entrepreneur with functions and services that they either can't afford or can't get," Melissaratos said.

Ehrlich tapped Melissaratos, a Greek immigrant, for his business experience and contacts among other attributes.

Melissaratos worked at Westinghouse for 32 years, where he was general manager of its Baltimore manufacturing plants. An engineer by training, Melissaratos was promoted to chief technology officer at the company's corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh and oversaw 16,000 employees and a $3.2 billion budget.

Before accepting the job with the new administration, he had been running his own firm, Armel Private Equity Investments.

Melissaratos takes office at a time when Maryland's economy is struggling and the state is trying to dig out of a $1.8 billion deficit.

His department's budget faces a 15 percent cut to $117.3 million in the coming fiscal year, down from $137.6 million. The Division of Financing Programs, which is the department's arm that distributes state funds to retain businesses, is marked for a 23 percent cut to $57.4 million.

But Melissaratos said Ehrlich is committed to doing whatever it takes to attract and retain businesses in the state.

"I don't think the budget is going to be a constraint," Melissaratos said. "If we have special investments that we need to make, I think we will be able to make them. They have assured me that when the rubber hits the road, we are not going to be short of the resources to get the job done."

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