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Business reps learn shape of Harford County

About 35 members of the Mason-Dixon Business Association learned about the economic status of Harford County at the organization's Feb. 20 meeting.

James Richardson, director of the Harford County Office of Economic Development, was present at the luncheon event, presenting information about Harford's accomplishments and challenges.

"If we could get D.C. straightened out, things would be a lot better," he joked.

He told of the Standard & Poors Double A Plus rating for the county's bonds, reflecting the growth and diversity of Harford County's economy, and he said that 22 percent of the work force is employed by the government, not just on the federal level.

Although new projects are moving into the county, one-half million square feet of class A office space is vacant now, he said.

As far as housing starts are concerned, Harford is seeing sale properties lie on the market for fewer than six months and also experiencing five-percent increase in house prices, Richardson said.

The county unemployment rate of seven percent is two percent less than that of the state overall, he said.

"We see ourselves as being part of a bigger region," said Richardson, explaining that people now move back and forth between states and counties.

He mentioned also that the Delta-Whiteford Main Street area could be developed and marketed, and that his office is studying the Marcellus shale natural gas discovery impacts.

In attracting businesses to the county, he said he is in competition with York County, Pa. as well as New Castle, Del. and neighboring Cecil County.

Richardson described the evolution of Harford County, from its farming nature and the beginning of Aberdeen Proving Ground in the in the early 1900s to Beta Shoe and other firms coming later in the century. He said 2005 was a watershed year, with the emergence of a digital economy.

"We are in the throes of a complete sea change," he said, adding that that change is experienced not just in the local county, but in the United States and the world.

Where once economies revolved around industries such as steel and wood, they now are in a knowledge and technology environment, he said.

He said that APG generates $20 billion a year and tries to keep money local through provision of jobs and money for businesses. He said it employs 22,000 to 25,000 people, making it the third largest employment entity in Maryland, ranking with Ft. Meade and NSA.

He told the Mason-Dixon business representatives that two new legislative initiatives facing the county are the invocation of a hotel tax and a storm water fee.

He told of the benefit to the county the hotel tax represents and, in answer to a question, and urged the business people to contact legislators to support it. He said Harford is the sole county in Maryland that has no such tax.

Richardson said the storm water fee issue now before the county council represents additional annual fees to homeowners and has come from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"We need to do this. If we don't do it today, we will have to do it tomorrow," he said.

He noted, however, that, since the new law would deal with square footage regarding impervious surfaces, he is concerned with its impact upon such entities as the Rite-Aid distribution center with its 2 million square feet.

He said that Harford is required by the state to fix its water quality and that the fee revenue will go to the county.

Richardson presented data sheets to the Mason-Dixon Business Association members, describing the status of county education and other features.

Regarding "The Knowledge Economy," he told of the research and development of APG, the new University Research Park, Harford's Entrepreneur's Edge, the Harford Business Innovation Center and other measures. One of those is the Towson and Harford Community College 2 + 2 program due to break out this spring, which will make possible four-year degrees at HCC, he said.

Of the county's educational attainments, Richardson said that, while Harford ranks higher than the state at 92.2 percent of its students graduating from high school or higher levels, it could do better than the 22.6 percent of those achieving some college. He added, though, that with economic changes, it may be better for graduates to achieve certifications rather than college degrees.

The Harford County Office of Economic Development's website is http://www.harfordbusiness.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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