Working proactively with existing businesses, targeting restrictive state regulations and formulating a “capture strategy” to attract new companies are areas where Washington County officials hope to improve economic development efforts, speakers said Wednesday morning.
Held as part of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce’s “Eggs and Issues” breakfast at the Ramada Plaza Hotel, the presentation set an attendance record, chamber President Brien J. Poffenberger said.
The talk came on the heels of the county’s dismissal of Economic Development Director Timothy R. Troxell, who had been scheduled to speak about the county’s economic status.
In his place, Economic Development Commission Chairman Hal Lucas, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray, and county Commissioner William B. McKinley spoke about the future of economic development in the county.
None of the speakers explicitly addressed Troxell’s dismissal, but they did point to areas where they saw room for improvement.
“On the EDC staff and in the county, we ought to know what your problems are,” Lucas told the local business leaders at the breakfast. “Not when you run in the door and say, ‘Hey I need help working around this plan,’ or ‘How do I do this?’ We ought to be out ahead of that and understanding what your needs are, and reaching out to the community, and we’ve not done that well enough.”
To improve in that area, county officials and the commissioners have begun visiting local businesses to talk about their concerns, Murray said.
Information from those visits will be used to develop a matrix to help the county identify common threads and craft initiatives to help businesses, Murray said.
“With 9,000 small businesses, if we add one employee at each of those small businesses, that’s a percent and a half on our employment rate,” he said.
The county will send out mailers asking local businesses to contact them about their experiences with regulatory roadblocks, he said. The answers will go into a database that the EDC can use to lobby the state for relief on those issues, he said.
The state regulations that the county must enforce are growing increasingly stringent, and when those make it difficult for businesses to relocate or expand, the county is often blamed for not being “business friendly,” Murray said.
However, the county must work within the guidelines imposed upon it, he said.
“We’re trying to think outside the box on many of these issues,” he said. “That’s a cliche. In our case, many times we’re trying to think outside the straitjacket.”
In addition, all three speakers touched on the importance of a strategic plan for economic development soon to be developed by a consultant using state and federal grant funding.
“We all know what consultants often do; they come in, and they sell you a plan for more consultants,” Lucas said. “We’ve worked hard to make that not the case.”
The plan will outline “measurable metrics, key strategies and defined goals,” he said.
It will also include a “capture strategy” for attracting new businesses, McKinley said.
“We need a strategy that when we go out looking for new business, we’re not out there just winging it,” he said. “We need to have something in writing ... that we go out every time and use.”
McKinley also encouraged community leaders in the room to help play up the county’s strengths, such as its location and top-notch school system, community college, museum and library, “in the media and anywhere else.”
Just as important as a good plan is an enthusiastic approach to putting it in action, McKinley said. When he was a football coach, drawing X’s and O’s on a blackboard could only take the team so far, he said.
“It only worked out when the players on the team were highly energized, highly motivated, believed in themselves, were proactive, which meant they took it to the other team; they didn’t wait for the other team to bring it to them,” McKinley said.
The same is true for economic development, he said.
“We’re not going to sit and wait for economic development to come to Washington County; we’re going to go out and get it,” McKinley said.