A recent column by Art Callaham about economic development in downtown Hagerstown is based on the 20th-century premise that a central city is the sole economic engine for itself and the surrounding county. Why would the citizens of Washington County think that this dated economic model could result in a 21st-century outcome? I submit that Hagerstown, alone, might not be able to energize itself or the county, and rather, that the county just might be able to energize Hagerstown.
First, let's take the old adage about thinking out of the box and just throw that box away. Second, instead of trying to lure outside interests to Hagerstown, why not capitalize on the rich, abundant, entrepreneurial resources already in this county? Why not revitalize and promote all the natural, historical, tourism and agricultural resources available to us right here and now? Third, our future economic health and quality of life is at stake. A decentralized and diverse economic base would be more resilient in a rapidly changing world.
Here are some examples of living with “no box” and building our economic strength from existing assets.
1. Set up a Rural Economic Development Council consisting of rural business leaders representing the various industry sectors such as culinary; agribusiness; wine and grapes; rural-based business; preservation and conservation; arts; education; horticulture; young farmers; direct and farmers markets; equine; fruits and vegetables; tourism business; traditional livestock; and agronomy. Task this group to develop a five-year, rural economic development and action plan.
2. Remove the barriers to urban and rural small-business development. The health, planning, zoning and permits departments are not small-business friendly.
3. Capital is the life blood of the entrepreneurial spirit. Develop a public/private investment pool that could provide small businesses the start-up, cash flow and technical assistance needed to realize their business objectives. Such a pool could become self-sustaining through reinvestment, of earned interest, back into the community and additional small businesses. Micro-financing is a success story around the world. Finance opportunity, and business and jobs will follow.
4. The wine and grape industry is the perfect start-up business for Washington County landowners and agricultural professionals. Our soil, climate, topography and pre-existing agricultural skill set and work ethic is an economic opportunity not to be missed. If you can grow apples and peaches, you can grow grapes. Washington County can compete with any location on the East Coast and many areas of Europe in grape and wine production. If you don’t believe me, ask Joe Fiola with the University of Maryland and a resident of Keedysville.
5. Another public/private start-up opportunity is urban and rural kitchen incubators. Due to state and federal regulations, food businesses must prepare their product in commercial kitchens monitored by the health department. The high cost and permitting process discourages would-be entrepreneurs. Renting space at a kitchen incubator is a moneymaker and job producer.
6. Develop a pasture-to-restaurant beef market with custom butchering, 28-day dry aging and sell to high-end restaurants in Hagerstown, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Northern Virginia.
7. Clean up Antietam Creek and provide multiple access points for recreational use, business and food vendors. Include walking paths and celebrations, festivals and canoe regattas. Forty miles of Antietam Creek flow through Washington County and the City of Hagerstown. That is 40 miles of lost economic opportunity.
The list of economic opportunities is endless — limited only by the confines of Callaham’s recommended centralized vision, existing code barriers and leadership vacuum. The question remains, will Washington County’s economic vision continue to live stalled in the 20th century or lead the way forward into the 21st century?
Donna Brightman is a member of the Washington County Board of Education.