By DON AINES
HAGERSTOWN— Strengths, weaknesses, attitudes and actions were discussed Wednesday as government, business and education leaders from Hagerstown and Washington County met to hear from consultants preparing a strategic economic development plan.
The county strengths include transportation, being at the junction of Interstates 81 and 70 and proximity to the Baltimore-Washington area, according to Kenneth Creveling of Urbanomics Inc., a Florida consulting firm.
It also has weaknesses.
“Your skill levels of your work force may not be … quite up to par with other areas,” Creveling told those gathered at the Bridge of Life Church in Hagerstown.
There is also a “no growth” attitude among many people, and political leadership that can be unresponsive and disjointed, he said.
For the next six months, Urbanomics and Leak-Goforth Co. of North Carolina will interview those leaders who attended and others in the county to develop the strategic plan, said Stuart Mullendore, chairman of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission’s Strategic Planning Task Force.
The plan will be more than a projection of what the county’s economy should look like in the next decade or two. Creveling said the first five years will include “action plans” — recommendations of what steps county and local governments must take to accomplish the goals.
“It has to be a living document. It has to be made up of annual tactical plans,” Mullendore said after the meeting.
The Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation, or CHIEF, was responsible for awarding the contract for the plan, for which the Appalachian Regional Commission and Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development each provided $50,000 grants.
By the end of the year, the consultants will analyze strengths and weaknesses of the county, assess the competition from surrounding jurisdictions and develop strategies, such as which industries and businesses the county should target to locate here and creating work-force development programs to meet those needs, Creveling said.
Those attending the meeting were asked about their priorities and concerns.
CHIEF President Gregory Snook talked about the continued development of a technology business park at Mount Aetna Farm and its supporting road network.
Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox spoke about the education system’s need to work with businesses and produce students with certifications to meet industry standards.
Although it has been stalled by legal and other challenges, the former Fort Ritchie Army base has 600 acres of prime development land, said Dori Nipps, executive director of PenMar Redevelopment Corp.
Others at the meeting said state and local regulations are a hindrance.
“As a local business … we’re facing huge obstacles” from state mandates, AC&T Vice President Brad Fulton said.
He also spoke of a “less than helpful climate on Baltimore Street,” saying later that he was referring to the county Division of Plan Review and Permitting.
“That’s the choke-point,” Fulton said.
“I think the commissioners heard that loud and clear when they were in Hancock,” Hancock Town Manager David Smith said, referring to a business forum some board members attended last week.
Maryland was ranked by a major publication at 40th on the list of business-friendly states, said Bowman Group partner Donald Bowman. He called that a “huge, huge challenge.”
“Part of the problem with Washington County is we’re in the state of Maryland,” said Terry Randall of H.P. Mellott.
Tom Riford, president of the convention and visitors bureau, spoke about negative perceptions of downtown Hagerstown with its “bail bondsmen and hookah bars,” while Wilcox said it was not the kind of place he’d want his son visiting at night.
“As an educator, the kids who did well, the kids who succeeded, had a great self-image,” Commissioner William McKinley said. “When the positive attitude starts to come out, positive things will start to happen.”
The construction of a new library and the possibility of a baseball stadium downtown are the kind of public investments that could create a demand for stores and businesses, Creveling said.