Like Dancing Hippos, Cecil County Commissioners Twirl on Economic Development Stage
It could have been a scene out of the Disney classic, â€śFantasia,â€ť where the tutu-wearing hippos cavort clumsily in ballet toe-shoes, when the Cecil County Commissioners tried to establish an economic development agenda Tuesday.
One hippo was missing from the corps dâ€™ ballet. Commissioner Michael Dunn (R-3) was absent, just as he was from an earlier public economic development meeting of the commissioners a month ago. His cast-mates, Commissioners James Mullin (R-1) and Diana Broomell (R-4) danced on, while two of the performers, Commissioners Tari Moore (R-2) and Robert Hodge (R-5) paused to state the obvious: whereâ€™s the choreographer for this performance?
Vernon Thompson has been the choreographer for the countyâ€™s economic development programs since late 2004 and previously spent a year on loan from the state to work with the county on plans to re-develop the Bainbridge property near Port Deposit. But Mullin, Broomell and Dun decided in a secret session to oust him from his post as director of economic development a week ago. [See previous Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2011/08/cecil-county-commissioners-oust-vernon-thompson-economic-development-chief-smipkins-get-even-for-political-independence/ ]
Thompsonâ€™s last day on the county payroll is 9/23/11 but with accrued time off, he has not been seen at the county building since his ouster. So when the commissioners met Tuesday afternoon in an informal session to discuss economic development, it was thought that there might finally be some public clues on why the majority ousted Thompson and their thinking on what was wrong, right or desired in a future economic development program.
But no such luck. The meeting turned out to be in response to a request from the stateâ€™s Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED) for the county to come up with a list of its top three priorities for economic development projects that might be assisted under the stateâ€™s â€śMaryland Made Easyâ€ť program that is designed to remove obstacles to business development.
But even that seemingly simple task was like wobbly exercises at the ballet barre.
Roy Clough, the longtime assistant director of the economic development office, tried to put the commissioner-dancers through their paces but they teetered on tip-toe in their own direction.
Clough ran through the numbers: the top employment sectors in the county are trade/warehouses/transportion, manufacturing, and education. Cecil Countyâ€™s share of manufacturing jobs has held steady, at 15 percent of county jobs, while statewide such jobs have declined to just 5 percent. In a 2004 plan, he said, the county identified its chief barriers to economic development as lack of infrastructure and the need for workforce â€śenhancementsâ€ť such as education and training.
Hodge pointed out that the lack of water and sewer infrastructure in the countyâ€™s growth corridor hasnâ€™t changed but the most problematic issue now is â€ślack of demandâ€ť from businesses seeking to re-locate or expand their operations due to the economy and the difficulty in obtaining financing.
â€śDonâ€™t shoot me,â€ť Hodge began, with a glance at Broomell, but the planned sale of most county water and sewer plants to the private Artesian firm will address the infrastructure issue and the county could ask state officials to expedite any necessary permits for future service expansion. Broomell staunchly opposes the Artesian sale, which has been approved by the state Public Service Commission and is scheduled by contract to close by the end of the year.
Broomell said she could go along with that as a priority on the list if it was solely limited to services in the immediate Route 40/I-95 growth corridor. The Artesian franchise area includes other service areas in the Elkton area, too.
Moore said the county should push to attract â€śtier twoâ€ť contractors related to the BRAC military expansion at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County. Most of the top tier contractors who must be located very close to APG are already in place, she said, but there is a market for smaller contractors who could locate, at a cheaper cost, in Cecil County but still be near APG.
Moore also pointed out that the county has a â€śmissing piece right nowâ€ť in its economic development strategy: a director of economic development.
Commissioners have circulated among themselves a draft job description for a new director and Broomell said the county should put a proposal out â€ślike yesterday; we need to advertise.â€ť But they set no timetable for that process and no target date for selection of a new director.
Eventually, the hippos pirouetted for an hour or so and came up with a five-point draft list: Tier 2 BRAC contractors; bridge and road improvements to serve the Chesapeake Overlook proposed retail complex near the Hollywood casino; the Bainbridge property; permits for infrastructure in the growth corridor; and agriculture, which Mullin said should include support for a controversial grain barge facility near Chesapeake City.
But that target list to the state falls short of a broad economic development strategy and a specific plan with goals and timetables for action by the county. And even that list is not finalized: Mullin and Broomell said it was a draft and could be re-worked later.
So it was just another rehearsal, and another not ready for prime time performance.