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Hundreds of Harford leaders brainstorm about county's future

Nearly 400 of Harford County leaders from the worlds of business, government, education and the nonprofit sectors put their heads together at Harford Community College on Friday to brainstorm about the county's future.

It was the first ConnectHarford symposium, an event that its organizers hope will continue to bring together leaders year after year.

"We are hoping it's the first of an annual event," HCC President Dennis Golladay said after a speech by retired Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Golladay said the college's APG Federal Credit Union Arena was just hosting the event, after being approached by Jim Dresher of the Dresher Foundation, a major philanthropic organization in Harford County and the Baltimore region. But Golladay was effusive in his praise for the concept.

The hope was to get leaders discussing and trying to commit to "some common vision of where the county is going," Golladay said. "It's been a tremendous partnership."

Attendees included local, county and state elected officials and government employees, HCC educators, Upper Chesapeake Health administrators, APG employees, business owners, nonprofits, foundations and community leaders from groups like Center for the Arts and chambers of commerce.

They met in breakout sessions to brainstorm the topics of building a diverse economic base, making the county a sought-after place, accelerating STEM (science, technology and math) education and removing barriers between organizations.

Someone from The John Carroll School talked about adding art education to STEM to make it "STEAM," while others wanted more active park space, a town center with more evening activities, teen centers or places for young people to go, more trade schools or vocational opportunities and better leveraging of high technology and a highly-educated group of residents.

One underlying thought that seemed to come up in several groups was the tension between the county's agricultural past and a more urbanized future.

People had different ideas about how urban, suburban or rural Harford really is.

Jim Butcher, of the Dresher Foundation, said the county is "kind of starting over."

"There is still a lot of farming but it's a much lesser part of the population," he said. "We are, like, born again."

The perception of educational opportunities was an issue. Harford County Council President Billy Boniface noted that "everybody wants to go to Fallston [High] because they think that's the better school," and others pointed out the high academic ranking of schools like Edgewood High.

In reference to the crime and other problems in the county's Route 40 corridor, Butcher said: "With all due respect to the media, all we hear is the bad news and we have a responsibility to hear the good news."

Some attendees said they moved to the area for education, open space and proximity to more urban areas, while others said they were brought here by the Army and stayed despite challenges like lack of job opportunities for their children or little public transit.

State Sen. Barry Glassman, who is running for county executive, said Harford's location as the true "center of the state" should be marketed.

Facilitator Gretchen Pisano, of Sounding Board Ink, told the breakout groups to focus on the possibilities, not the challenges.

"Focusing on a problem only ensures its continued survival," she said, adding that people should "trust the wisdom in the room."

Jim Dresher explained his family has traditionally been more reactive, giving funds and resources in response to county needs.

"We thought this was very much a proactive event," Dresher said.

He did not know exactly what would come out of the morning-long brainstorming but was very positive.

"My sense is, something really good will," he said. "I think we are pioneering here."

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