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County Comment/Commissioners Hear Economic Update

by Norman Bassett
Washington County Public Information Officer

With all the recent bad news about the economy, the stock market and corporate dealings, the Washington County Board of County Commissioners requested an update as to how the County, region and state are being impacted, from staff of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission (EDC).

In its regular meeting on July 23, the Board received a general economic overview from national, state and local perspectives, and an update on several EDC projects and plans.

Acting Director Tim Troxell told the Board that the County’s Unemployment rate fell in May to 4.4%, a drop of .7% from the April 5.1% rate. As a comparison, Allegany and Garrett Counties are both at 6.3%, while the state average is 4.6% and the national rate is 5.5%.

Nationally, the manufacturing sector turned in its strongest performance in two and a half years in June, with the manufacturing index moving up to 56.2 from the previous month level of 55.7. June was the fifth month in a row that the index has seen an increase, Troxell said. Commercial construction spending is slightly down, but residential building is soaring, due to low mortgage rates. The Wall Street picture continues to fluctuate, but this is due to problems within corporations, Troxell said. Gross Domestic Product is up, measured at 6.1% for the first quarter of 2002.

In Maryland, leading indicators point to a slow economic recovery with the manufacturing sector showing signs of improvement. Four of the seven indicators used by the state declined last month, but weekly manufacturing hours rose, existing home sales increased by 12% and automobile sales role 6.5%.

Here in Washington County, the EDC office’s client load has increased slightly from this time last year, with the quality of leads increasing. Clients are now more familiar with what the County has to offer, due in part to the EDC web page and positive interaction with the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED).

Marketing Specialist Cassandra Latimer told the Board that client prospects have increased because DBED recognizes the cooperation and efficiency Washington County provides, resulting in a “Preferred County” status not accorded some Counties.

Earlier in the day, Commissioners heard a presentation from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED) through representatives of Retention Technologies, Inc. requesting support for the Economic Development Commission’s participation in the Maryland Business Retention Program. Focus of that pilot program is retaining established businesses. Retention Technology representatives said that 75-80% of new job creation results from expansion of existing businesses. The program is targeting Washington, Allegany and Garrett Counties, and could result in statewide implementation. DBED wants consistency statewide through creation of a streamlined retention program. Troxell told the Commissioners that the Business Retention, Inc. presentation showed the importance of positive dealing with existing businesses in the community.

The Tri-County Council has hired Pathfinders, Inc., a surveying company to poll business and residences in the three Western Maryland Counties. That survey will assess skill levels education and rates of pay, to assist EDC in documenting availability of labor to new and existing clients.

In Hagerstown, the Machine Trades Institute has been created by the economic developers of four counties, with Hagerstown Community College as lead institution. Classes will be offered by HCC this fall and on-site training will be made available in these skilled areas.

Latimer told the Board that the Choices in Colleges and Careers event drew participation by 125 colleges and Universities, as well as a host of local businesses last year. Co-sponsored by the Board of Education and South Hagerstown High School, the event drew over 2,000 interested students and their families, and will be repeated on November 11 of this year.

With creation of a new Biotechnology partnership, called Potomac Tech Territory, economic developers from Washington, Frederick, Allegany and Garrett Counties have banded together to promote manufacturing of Biotech products resulting from research in the I-270 corridor. As firms begin to produce products, space is needed, Latimer said, and that space is to be found in the four Western Maryland Counties.

EDC has recently produced a brochure describing Enterprise Zones in the County, and last week’s announcement that the County has received Foreign Trade Zone status will be an immense boost to economic health and well-being of our citizens, Troxell said.

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