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Havre de Grace officials want to form economic development department

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With Havre de Grace's economic development leader about to step down, the city council is hoping to establish a separate department for economic development.

Economic Development Manager Meghan Simmons will leave her position at the end of August, Mayor Wayne Dougherty said Monday.

During the city council meeting Monday night, council members introduced a resolution that would establish the position of a director of economic development – as opposed to economic development manager – as well as an economic development department – under the city charter.

Councilman Bill Martin explained Simmons' position included a salary and a pension, but the charter amendment would elevate that position to a director's role, which is a contract position.

If the charter amendment establishing the post passes, a director of economic development would be comparable to the directors of public works and planning and zoning.

Martin said the change will give residents more control over the direction of the city.

It will be the mayor's job to find someone to fill the role and the council will approve it, as is done with the other director positions, he said.

"No one can say that our city is doing financially fantastic, as far as businesses go," Martin noted. "There's much we can do to make businesses better."

Martin said the council thinks this is a better approach to developing the city's economy.

Councilman Dave Glenn said business growth is the subject of many questions he is asked regularly by residents.

"It's evident that economic development is on everybody's radar screen," he said, adding it comes up at candidate forums year after year.

"It only makes sense to elevate that to the level of a director," he said.

Councilman Joe Smith also said he would support the proposal and noted he asked in an e-mail earlier why the city does not have directors of tourism and economic development.

"I like the idea of actually bringing this position of economic development to the director position," Smith said. "I would add tourism to that as well because the two go hand-in-hand."

Smith said the city has a "huge opportunity" to improve on what it has been doing, and mentioned the recent Art Show, Seafood Festival and War of 1812 weekend as examples of how tourism and economic development work together.

"We've got a great foundation," he said about the city. "The mayor and administration are extremely talented and can handle a lot more, and I think we can take it to the next level."

Event success

Brigitte Peters, the city's tourism and marketing manager, told the council that 26,000 people were ultimately found to have attended the War of 1812 commemoration in May over the course of three days.

She estimated the event brought more than $1 million to the county, directly or indirectly.

More volunteers also took part in the event than in any other Havre de Grace event, a $30,000 value, she said.

"We have talked to some of the restaurant owners that claimed they had never seen in their entire time of business such sales," Peters said, adding that it is "exciting" to find out some of the indirect impact from the event.

More than 150 volunteers participated in the War of 1812 weekend.

Lori Maslin said the Seafood Festival, which she runs, drew thousands of people over the course of three days and the festival's Facebook page got more than 12,000 hits.

Maslin said some downtown business owners called to tell her they appreciated the amount of business the event generated.

"The idea is to make sure every time they come back, they want to come back once again," Maslin said.

Library progress

Amber Shrodes, director for the Harford County Library Foundation, noted the library is hoping to use the funds from its upcoming annual gala to kick off the campaign to build a new Havre de Grace library.

She said the library was built to hold 30,000 volumes and now holds 68,000, and the system almost could not offer its new Little Leapers program because the branch is so cramped.

Shrodes noted it is a "very well-used, well-loved library" and what the system envisions is "a bigger, beautiful library" with more community space and a dedicated children's department.

Councilman Fred Cullum said the library backs up "almost to my property" and confirmed that it is extremely popular.

"It is a very busy, busy place," Cullum said.

License agreement

The council approved several license agreements, including one for a handicapped ramp in a city right-of-way in the 800 block of Giles Street.

Martin wanted to waive the $50 license-processing fee, but he was narrowly voted down.

"Is it normal to charge people $50 for a handicapped ramp?" Martin asked. "The only thing that's in the right-of-way is a handicapped ramp for citizens that are disabled."

Cullum replied: "It has been the policy in the past to charge the fee because it still requires admin staff, time to do the license agreement."

After the council approved a license agreement for a skateboard sign in the 700 block of Otsego Street, Smith said he would like to see stricter controls of what can be put on prominent streets.

Smith said he is "a little sensitive" to this street because it is a gateway into the city.

He said he would like to try to get rid of items such as chain-link fences in the area and pointed out a "Cash for Gold" sign there, which Planning and Zoning Director Neal Mills confirmed is not permitted.

Besides those two agreements, the council approved licenses for a fence in the 500 block of South Adams Street and a building sign in the 300 block of North Union Avenue.

FiOS questions

Dougherty said one of the major questions he gets from residents is about fiber optics and the possibility of getting Verizon FiOS television and Internet service,

The mayor read a letter from the company, however, telling him that Verizon does not have a franchise agreement with Havre de Grace and "is not seeking additional franchise agreements" at this time.

Smith said he hopes to pursue FiOS if that service does become available.

Councilman John Correri, however, said he had to go through a "circus" to get a technician to come to his house recently, and if the company comes back with a contract, he might not vote for it.

"Verizon needs to clean up its act," Correri said. "It was a joke to deal with those folks."

Building slowdown

City building permits continue to be very slim, planning director Mills said, adding that "sluggish doesn't even begin to describe" the permits: the city issued three since July. Last year, it issued one during the same time period.

Smith discussed the need to get more residents, as the trend is for people to move back to "cores of cities."

"Younger people are choosing to settle in places like Baltimore or Washington, D.C., so we have a little tougher job to attract newer people to the community," he said. "I think Havre de Grace has a lot to offer, and if you go around and look at some of the new developments around, they're building towns like Havre de Grace from scratch because they want a walkable community."

Craig, meanwhile, said Havre de Grace High School was just ranked 40th in the Baltimore area for student achievement, according to a list in the Baltimore Business Journal.

"Just imagine what it could be if it was all that it should be," he said in reference to the push to build a new school.

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