Study shows how to appeal to tech firms

Officials seeking to boost area's industrial tax base

More business parks suggested

Lack of highway access noted as biggest obstacle

October 26, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

If Carroll leaders want to attract more high-tech business to the county, they should reduce congestion on major roads, create more broadband Internet access and market Mount Airy as an extension of the Washington area, according to a new study by business and real estate analysts.

The study, paid for by a $52,000 state grant, praises the county for its skilled work force, rural setting and highly regarded schools and says Carroll might find its niche as a manufacturing center for high-tech companies based in neighboring counties. The study also says the county would be more competitive in wooing new industry if it had more land set aside for business parks.

"If you don't have a site ready to go now, forget it, they move on," said Joe Cronyn, a real estate consultant with the Columbia firm Lipman Frizzell & Mitchell LLC who presented the study to county officials and business leaders last week.

Carroll officials are working on a measure that would allow the county to tailor large, open parcels for business parks. They also hope the Warfield Complex, a planned business center along Route 32 in Sykesville, will be a model for park development in Finksburg and Mount Airy.

Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said at the presentation Thursday that he thinks the county is acting on many of the study's recommendations.

"What the presentation today shows me is how much we've done right," he said. "We've just got to be careful we don't sell our quality of life just to get the money."

County officials believe they must increase Carroll's industrial tax base, which is one of the smallest in the state at 12 percent of the overall base. They say residential growth has generated an increased demand for services and that tax revenue from that growth can no longer cover the bills.

According to another recent study, about 62 percent of Carroll workers commute out of the county every day. County leaders hope that by bringing in business parks and high-tech industry, they can keep more of those workers home. They commissioned the technology study in hopes of learning how to attract such prospects.

Carroll's large manufacturing work force and relatively affordable land could make it attractive to companies wanting to set up production or distribution centers, said Richard Clinch, a University of Baltimore economics professor who worked on the study. High-tech businesses are more likely to spring up near Washington, where federal labs and similar businesses abound, Clinch said.

"But those businesses are looking toward production, and that could be where Carroll County fits in," he said.

The study pinpoints a lack of highway access in the county as the largest barrier to a high-tech business boom.

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge agreed, saying, "Our biggest problem has been a lack of money coming from the state for roads."

But even if Carroll officials get their wish and the state pays for a Route 30 bypass around Hampstead and Manchester, the absence of an interstate tying into other major highways would put most of the county at a disadvantage against competitors in counties such as Harford and Cecil, the study says.

The study estimates that Carroll has about 260 acres ready for business parks compared with 846 acres in Harford and 2,600 acres in Cecil.

Mount Airy's proximity to Interstate 70 and to tech-rich Montgomery County makes it the most attractive place for a technology park, the study says.

"I don't think the Mount Airy people know what they're sitting on," said Clinch, who suggested the county could even ask the state for a shunt from Interstate 270 to Mount Airy.

Other barriers include the absence of a research university in the county and an incomplete network of broadband DSL lines, which are the standard Internet links for many small businesses.

The first problem can be overcome, the study says, because the county could partner with nearby research universities and federal labs or at least market its proximity to such facilities.

Verizon officials who were at the meeting said they are working on giving the county wider broadband access.

The study also says Carroll should step up its marketing efforts for tech-oriented companies and workers.

It recommends the county add a technology section to its Web site and make contact with residents who have jobs relating to technology so they could be paired with companies interested in moving to Carroll.

County officials said they have been reluctant to take such aggressive measures because they haven't had sites to offer to companies.

But with renewed efforts to design a specific land-use classification for properties that could house business parks, they hope to change the county's image.

"When these people come to Carroll County and they want to put businesses on our land, we want to have it ready for them," said Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr.

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