Courtesy may pay off

Officials say thanks to local businesses as part of growth strategy

September 30, 2005|By JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS | JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS,SUN REPORTER

Into an office they all crowded, the state delegate, the city alderman, two work force trainers and a pair of economic development officials, with a pressing message to deliver to a Frederick insurance company:

Thanks.

The scene is repeating itself about 120 times across Frederick County this week as leaders express gratefulness to major employers and mom-and-pop operations for doing business locally.

It's not simply being polite - it's a job-growth strategy.

The high-profile role of economic development is luring companies with hundreds of new jobs to town, but the bread and butter is keeping the ones you've got. Here and across the country, officials say their rule of thumb is that existing businesses produce as much as 80 percent of employment growth.

That's why the annual "Business Appreciation Week" in Frederick is just one twist of many on the employer-retention theme, above and beyond the everyday offers of government assistance.

Harford sends its county executive - among other employees - on regular trips to businesses throughout the year.

The county executives in Baltimore County and Anne Arundel have roundtable lunches with industry representatives.

And Frederick got the idea for its appreciation week from Howard, which has been doing it since the early 1990s.

Communities across the country are putting more time and effort into retention, because nowadays the fierce competition for jobs isn't just national, it's global.

Economic developers trying to attract businesses from other areas - "hunting buffalo," they call it - are finding fewer buffalo to hunt because more are going offshore, said Thomas Lyons, associate professor of urban and public affairs at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

"It's getting harder and harder for local entities to play that game, even with state help," he said. "And so it makes sense to pay attention to what you have ... and encourage it to expand."

Something's working in Frederick: The county, about 45 miles from Baltimore and Washington, has one of the fastest rates of job growth in the state - which itself is adding jobs at a better pace than the national average.

Local officials who visit companies or invite companies to come visit them aren't limiting themselves to pleasantries. They're asking how business is going, whether the location is good, if there are any problems they can help solve.

"Your best customer is your existing customer, that's our slogan," said J. Thomas Sadowski, Harford's economic development director.

Between county employees and state officials, nearly 1,000 Harford businesses get a visit each year, he said.

Howard typically finds that more than half the companies it calls on during its appreciation week, which was held in May this year, need follow-up attention about issues as varied as parking problems and crime.

Requests during Frederick's first Business Appreciation Week in 2001 prompted the county to streamline its permitting process, said economic development director Marie Keegin.

Reorganization is still under way, she said, but now permits and development reviews are handled under a single director rather than several divisions.

Businesses on the thank-you tour have also asked for help getting access to contract work at Fort Detrick, Frederick's Army base and largest employer, which is why the county - with state and federal assistance - set up a Fort Detrick business development office in March.

This year, 60 "ambassadors" - from mayors to chamber of commerce leaders - are popping in to see what businesses have to say.

"We visit companies all year long with our elected officials, etc., but this is a way to really make a big impact," Keegin said.

Frederick's rate of job growth ranked it third only to the more rural Queen Anne's and Calvert counties between 1998 and 2003, according to the most recent data extracted from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis by the Maryland Department of Planning.

Last year, state labor records show Frederick added about 3,350 jobs, a nearly 4 percent increase. The nation as a whole averaged a little more than 1 percent.

Exurban Frederick is dealing with some pains from its growth, both population and employment.

One of the recurring themes from this year's appreciation week is the high cost of homes. The average sales price last month was $357,000, an increase of nearly $60,000 in a year.

Asked after a visit Monday if the government could do anything to help him, Jim Lauerman, chief underwriting officer for aviation insurer Avemco Insurance Co., joked: "Yeah - cut the price of housing in half."

Steve Schmidt, president of Frederick Air, a heating and air conditioning contractor, said many of his 18 employees live outside the county. The more affordable Hagerstown, 25 miles west, is a popular spot.

"Costs me a lot of money and them a lot of time," said Schmidt, whose employees who work in the field go home in company trucks.

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