February 7, 2012
At morning event, board responds to questions about stadium, commercial air service, and other topics
By HEATHER KEELS
The Washington County Board of Commissioners Tuesday stressed its commitment to helping existing businesses expand as they fielded questions from local business leaders at the first of two State of the County presentations.
“We can hope for the pie-in-the-sky, 2,000-employee plant that might come in here someplace, but we know what we have, and we know that we need to grow from within; we need to take care of what we already have,” Commissioner William B. McKinley told the audience at the morning presentation hosted by the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce at Fountainhead Country Club.
At that event, the five commissioners also responded to queries about a potential stadium project, commercial air service, making do with less revenue and other topics.
The morning presentation was followed by an evening presentation at Hager Hall that was free and open to the public. The county added the second presentation this year after some residents complained that making it at a paid-admission chamber breakfast suggested favoritism toward business leaders over average citizens.
At both events, the commissioners showed an 18-minute videotape promoting the county and highlighting major achievements from the past year.
“Maintaining its record of consistently saving the taxpayer money, the county has continued to reduce its overall operational costs for three years in a row and has not implemented a tax increase to citizens in 12 years,” the video’s narrator said.
Citing the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, the county has the lowest cost per capita for services provided of all 23 counties and Baltimore City, according to the video.
Cost-saving highlights in 2011 included reducing the county workforce by 28 positions and merging several departments for increased efficiency, resulting in savings of more than $500,000 a year. The county also saved $4.5 million in interest expenses by redeeming airport runway bonds early, the video said.
The video showcases the STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — building recently completed at Hagerstown Community College; a new citizen emergency notification system; the newly reconstructed Devil’s Backbone Dam; the improved intersection of Halfway and Massey boulevards; and the new Transit Transfer Center.
In 2011, the Economic Development Commission announced more than $123 million in business capital investment and the creation of more than 1,350 jobs, according to the video.
Those figures include VT Industries’ more than $11 million capital investment, which created 75 jobs, and Evolve Composites’ more than $3 million investment in the former Fleetwood plant in Hancock, which created 60 new jobs.
After the video, the commissioners took questions from the audience.
Asked about what the county is doing to keep current businesses satisfied, Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham said the most significant thing the county has done is to pay attention to businesses complaining about barriers to expansion.
“We’ll try our best to offer incentives to make it easier, and if we can’t make it easier, we’ll at least empathize and feel your pain,” she said.
On a potential Hagerstown Suns stadium project, Callaham stressed that the facility would be multifunctional and said the community would “work really hard to be aggressive to make sure that if the numbers work out, this will happen.”
Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II has said the county and city are considering a study on the economic impact of a new stadium.
“Some people would argue that stadiums are not always the economic driver that we would hope they would be, but certainly if we don’t try, if we don’t look... we’ll never know,” Callaham said.
Asked what the county is doing to ensure the viability of Hagerstown Regional Airport, Commissioner William B. McKinley said airport officials hope to have a new passenger service to replace Direct Air within the next year.
“It is a bidding war with other communities,” Callaham said of attracting an airline. “It’s in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in incentives, so you have to be careful how you spend your money, but I think that’s still on our list of things to do.”
‘Come and do’
Responding to a question about the county budget, Commissioner John F. Barr said he thought the county had been “very frugal, very conservative and very mindful of your dollars.”
Callaham said an increased focus on sports tourism would help buoy the county’s economy until recovery from the recession is complete.
“Most successful counties throughout the nation are ‘come and do,’” Callaham said. “Historically, we have been a Civil War ‘come and see’ (county)... ‘Do’ people spend more money than ‘see’ people, so we’re going to get them to ‘come and do.’”
Callaham also spoke about the county’s recent decision to endorse a private curbside recycling program instead of creating a county-managed curbside recycling program.
“It’s too expensive to take (recycling program costs) out of tax dollars,” she said. “There’s no willingness at this table to raise taxes. As important as recycling is, if we’re going to raise taxes, we’re going to do it for essential services like public safety.”
The State of the County video was produced by After Five Productions and cost $6,400, county spokeswoman Sarah Lankford Sprecher said. The county also handed out flash drives containing the video, which cost $1,683, Sprecher said.
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