Baltimore County executive candidates Republican Kenneth C. Holt and Democrat Kevin Kamenetz have been listening to voters for months in forums, festivals and personal visits, hearing an overwhelming concern: jobs.
Announcements this year that the Solo Cup plant would close in Owings Mills and Severstal North America would keep its Sparrows Point steel mill idle through the end of this year have underscored the anxieties, as county unemployment has about doubled in the last two years, on pace with the state and the country as a whole. Candidates this election season have been trying to respond.
Holt, 59, of Kingsville, a senior vice president with Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, is proposing a seven-point program to "expand career choices" for county residents, including continuing efforts already being pursued by the county's Department of Economic Development and some new initiatives. The new efforts include opening a Negro Leagues baseball museum and a performing arts center along Liberty Road and promoting the sort of "agritourism" that has worked so well in Lancaster County, Pa., and California's wine country.
Kamenetz, 52, a lawyer from Owings Mills and four-term county councilman, has not released a detailed economic development platform. He has offered new projects of his own, including a restaurant and office park in Randallstown, and promotes his record of supporting many economic development efforts already in place. The county said those efforts — including tax credits — have helped more than 30 companies open, expand or relocate to the county this year.
Holt, who served one term in the Maryland House of Delegates in the 1990s, promotes his experience in the financial world and also in the General Assembly, where he played a role in establishing a venture capital fund to spur business development. He argues that he has the background to lead the county through what he has called an "economic crisis."
Specifically, his approach announced this week includes expanding the Department of Economic Development by as much as four or five times more than its current number of 20 employees. He would have the department make more credit available to companies and analyze ways to ease regulatory burdens on business.
Holt said he wants to create more county "enterprise zones," or districts identified as needing help in boosting business. Such zones now exist in the southeast and southwest portions of the county; businesses moving there can apply for county and state tax credits. Holt said he would expand the concept to include more regions and specific sites, such as the Solo Cup plant, where 540 jobs will be lost as the plant closes over the next two years.
Holt said he would expand the county's offerings in vocational and what he's calling "career-oriented education," designating certain schools to work more closely with businesses in developing courses and internships. Some of this is already being done, and Holt said he wants to improve the effort.
Kamenetz was not available to be interviewed, but a statement released by his campaign made clear he is not impressed with Holt's proposals, many of which he criticized as duplicating existing policy.
"I'm trying to articulate a vision," Holt said in an interview. "I'm not saying these are exclusive; I'm not saying the Department of Economic Development doesn't have good ideas. They do."
The statement from Kamenetz's campaign said Holt's recommendations "show a glaring lack of knowledge regarding Baltimore County Government by 'proposing' programs that are already in existence and, contrary to his rhetoric, would expand the size of government."
Holt has said the county could find savings that could cut 3 percent to 5 percent of the $2.56 billion budget. The Kamenetz campaign responds by saying the councilman has voted to cut the budget 4 percent this year.
Kamenetz's campaign said he has voted to foster the public-private business development Holt proposes, and has "consistently voted to support agricultural business expansion through legislation expanding availability of wineries, farm markets, and equestrian centers promoting the county's rich agricultural history."
At a recent campaign forum, Kamenetz called Holt's notion of a Negro Leagues museum a "field of dreams," and argued that residents of the distressed Liberty Road area need not "symbols, but action and reality." He said he would support a restaurant and office park in association with Northwest Hospital Center in Randallstown and create a task force to work on economic development in that area in connection with the county Revenue Authority.
Kamenetz voted this year to create a regional job-training center in Randallstown that is expected to open next year. The Liberty Center would combine the efforts of the county's Office of Workforce Development and the Community College of Baltimore County.