For the past few weeks, there has been a lot of news and editorial space given to our local Economic Development Commission, staff, leadership, County Commissioners, past County Commissioners, old dogs, children and watermelon wine. OK, not the last three; that’s just my attempt to lighten the mood when we talk about our community and economic development.
Let me say that I will make no attempt to conclude that changes in our economic development functions have been good or bad for our community. Tim Troxell, Shelby McGinley, Ron Bowers, Hal Lucas, Stu Mullendore and many more of the economic development players, staff and volunteers, are my friends. Like a stage play, each of the characters has played a role; some scenes have played out to applause and other scenes have been given less than favorable reviews. Whether we, the audience, applauded or booed, all of the characters deserve at least credit for auditioning and being in the play.
But, like the “Days of Our Lives,” the times, they are a changin’. Even the musical “Cats” closed on Broadway after nearly 7,500 performances, proving that even with a good show there will eventually be a change. Nothing is forever. So, where do we go from here?
In talking about Florida law, fellow columnist Pete Waters offered two options: Stand your ground or die quietly. I would label those options, for economic development purposes, as: Do nothing (stand our ground) or move backwards (die quietly). And I would add a third option: Move forward (live better). I advocate for moving forward and living better. So how does that manifest itself in Washington County?
Everything I am about to suggest has been talked about for years, either here locally or in some other locale. I have always been convinced that there are really no new ideas, just ideas presented with different spins. Also, I will not conclude that any of my suggestions are the “right” or “correct” or “guaranteed” pathway to moving forward in economic development terms. My only hope is to spur public dialogue that might lead to a community vetted and supported effort.
Consolidate the economic development function within the entire community. Today, Washington County, the City of Hagerstown and each of the other eight municipalities chartered within the county perform (I mean expend time, energy or resources) some semblance of economic development. Obviously, the time spent, and energy or resources expended, differs between individual entities. Set aside parochialism, and each separate entity has roughly the same mission: “Enhance or improve the economy in … (fill in the blank).” I would fill in the blank for a consolidated effort by inserting “our community.”
Charles Aaron “Bubba” Smith, the Hall of Fame defensive end from Michigan State University and later the Baltimore Colts, was quoted once concerning his “mission” as a defensive end: “I break through the offensive line and tackle the entire backfield and sort out who has the ball.” I believe that if our economic development mission was to tackle the entire community we would be in a better position to sort out exactly how to move our economic ball forward.
Privatize the function; locally, we have already privatized our Convention and Visitors Bureau. Why not economic development? Privatization simply means creating a structured public/private partnership with funding from both the government and the private sector. Sure, I know Maryland is not Pennsylvania and details would have to be worked out; however, all you have to do is look north to Franklin County to see a very successful privatized economic development organization — the Franklin County Area Development Corporation (FCADC).
No new wheel to be invented; just talk to Mike Ross, the President of FCADC, or review FCADC’s website. In fact, just roll out a local proposal from the ‘90’s and update and consider it; that old privatization proposal still has merit.
Contract out the function; governments have been doing this for years. Contracting out is merely a step beyond privatization where a private sector organization signs on to provide a service. Contracting out generally is more outcomes-based; sometimes, the contractor is only paid for results. We used to call this results-based effort: “Eat what you kill.” A well-structured contract can assure either results or no expenditure of resources.
Nothing new here, just the mutterings of an old man. Let the dialogue begin. What are your suggestions for our community to live better?
Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.