County aims to retain firms

`Inc. link' program, campaigns focus on businesses, industries

August 27, 2006|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun reporter

Increasing Carroll County's commercial and industrial assessable tax base - the lowest among all the metropolitan Baltimore counties - dominates campaign literature and speeches from the county's candidates for commissioner and state legislature.

Only 11.6 percent of Carroll's property is designated industrial - less than the state industrial base average of 16.9 percent and the fifth lowest among the state's counties, according to last year's figures.

In the early 1990s, Carroll's business base was about 16 percent. As residential growth soared, that number dropped, officials said.

"There are challenges, but we are stepping up to the plate with a lot of novel programs," Steven D. Powell, chief of staff to the county commissioners, said during a recent Cabinet meeting.

In that vein, the county's Department of Economic Development launched a business retention program last week. The county has purchased a new software program, dubbed "Inc. link," to manage contacts with existing businesses and help recruit new ones.

Purchased for $14,000 from Erie, Pa.-based Executive Pulse Inc., the program costs $1,000 a year to use, said Denise Beaver, the county's deputy economic development director.

While contacts with Carroll's top 100 businesses was once managed partially on paper, the new program automates all the data. Partner agencies - Carroll Community College, the county health department, the Carroll Technology Council - will all interact through the software.

It produces specific reports, grouping companies based on the number of employees, industry, labor relations, downsizing risks, etc. But all the company data remains confidential, county officials said.

"We're trying to make our services more responsive to foster a business climate and business growth," said Lawrence Twele, director of economic development. "This helps us to do it better, smarter, faster."

Rising residential assessments have further reduced the county's percentage of industrial base, masking any business growth, officials said.

"For a number of years, it was around 12 percent," said Ted Zaleski, county director of management and budget. "Businesses absolutely were added, but you're chasing a moving target. If the residential portion was standing still, it would be a whole lot easier to change the percentage."

Among the commissioner candidates, Republican Doug Howard has called for increasing the business tax base to 15 percent in 10 years.

In a video on his Web site, www.doughowardforcarroll .com, Howard said he would commission a work force study to determine what industries draw Carroll's many commuting residents.

Then, he said he would lure those industries - like information technology - to new office parks and employment campuses in the county.

"Where do we need to be in 10 years?" asked Howard, who helps bring small businesses to the county through Start-Up Carroll. "Slow growth is the first step, but we have to bring in economic development behind it, or we don't really catch up."

Increasing Carroll's industrial base to 15 percent would require 900 additional acres for business use, county officials said. Residential growth would have to halt, as home assessments remained at a standstill, Powell said.

"We'd truly have to put the brakes on all residential growth," he said.

In promoting the "Inc. link" program, the county's economic development office will introduce the Executive Pulse software to business service partners in a training session Tuesday morning.

Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties already use the software to network with local businesses, officials said.

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