Benjamin Wu, deputy secretary with the Maryland Dept. of Business and Economic Development, fielded questions about minimum wage, work force housing and small business grants — and offered tips to local businesses seeking advice — during a stop in Carroll County.
Wu and other state representatives were at Carroll Community College on Friday morning for a panel on business growth in the county.
“I just want you to know we at commerce know what’s going on here in Carroll County,” Wu told the group of about 100 local entrepreneurs. “I hope all of you do too, because Carroll County is proving themselves to be a great place to do business.
“To me, Carroll County is punching way above it’s weight class. Businesses are expanding, we are able to attract and retain companies, and you’ve been able to do all this while keeping Carroll’s rural heritage.”
“I’ve owned a small business for 13 years, and expanded my work force almost triple since I started,” said Debbie Scheller, owner of A Likely Story Bookstore in Sykesville. “My concern is with the new pending law passing about minimum wage.”
The bookstore organizes author events with bestselling writers like Nicholas Sparks, Harlan Coben and Jamie Ford — and Publishers Weekly announced in January the shop is on its shortlist for the publication’s annual Bookstore of the Year award.
“I pay higher than minimum wage to start,” Scheller said, “but I can totally see — and we’ve had this discussion in our merchants meeting — where I will have to cut staff, and also have to cut off-site events and some of the staffing that I do for other resources. So where do we stand and where do we go with this?”
Wu said that although Gov. Larry Hogan has a great relationship with the General Assembly, this is one of his big concerns this legislative session.
“One of the big concerns that the governor has is that if we institute this statewide, then we are potentially not just adversely impacting businesses such as yours,” he said, “but also, that we are putting ourselves at a competitive disadvantage relative to our neighboring states.
“Carroll County is right next to Pennsylvania,” said Wu, “and that doesn’t necessarily put us in the best position for attraction and retention. … This will continue to be debated as the General Assembly winds down. We hope the General Assembly will do the right thing.”
Work, live and play in Carroll
Wu said Hogan also wants to make sure that the entire state benefits from economic expansion, and that he recognizes light manufacturing has been very successful in Carroll with companies like Strouse in Westminster, Fuchs North America in Hampstead and Evapco in Taneytown.
But Bryan Lyburn, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Carroll County, said the conversation about workforce growth cannot occur without talking about where employees live.
“Light manufacturing is being developed at record levels,” he said. “About 50 years ago someone with a light manufacturing job in the Port of Baltimore could own their own home in the community where they work.”
That is not the case anymore, Lyburn said.
“Our single biggest import to our county is our work force,” he said. “Forty percent of our workforce comes from out of Carroll County.”
How much money actually stays in Carroll, he asked.
“We’re investing $55 million in [Md.] 97 to accommodate Pennsylvania commuters,” he said. “It seems like we need to get Maryland right. Get our employees living here, working here, playing here, and keeping their money here.”
Wu agreed workforce housing is “a significant issue relative to the work force.”
It is a concern the state is aware of and making a priority, he said, because it was also one concern Amazon had when it was considering Maryland for its second headquarters.
“They took a very strong look at Maryland because of our work force,” he said, “but one of the offset issues they were very concerned about when we met with them was the capacity of our region to have affordable housing — because that was the major issue that they have in the current headquarters in Seattle.”
Working with the Department of Housing is a priority for the state to ensure employees are able to invest in where they work, he said.
Small business grants
Wu told business owners Friday morning that there are many resources available to business owners, and that Tamar Osterman, the direct contact for Carroll and Frederick counties, is one of those valuable resources.
“Maryland businesses and business groups are our clients,” said Wu. “We are not just here to serve you, we rely on you to promote the programs and spread the word about how the Dept. of Commerce can help in a lot of ways.”
Osterman can help find businesses find out what kinds of assistance they are eligible for, and navigate those resources, he said.
Tash Otto, owner of Cup Tea Bar & Cafe in Westminster wanted to know what the state could do for his shop.
“What can you do for a company that’s been closed for a certain time because of restructuring maintenance, after going through a whole two quarters of no compensation, no income?” he asked.
He said what was expected to be six days of flooring repairs turned into five months of work.
“I know scones and soup,” he told the Times during a break between speakers. “I don’t know all about construction.”
Otto hopes to apply for the state’s Small Business Development Financing Authority (MSBDFA), which is designed to promote the viability and expansion of businesses owned by economically and socially disadvantaged entrepreneurs.
Wu said communication between the businesses, the county and the state is the key to success.
And the future looks bright.
Job growth in Maryland continues to lead the mid-Atlantic region and unemployment is the lowest it’s been in a decade, according to the deputy secretary.
“We know that the future will change,” said Wu. “Technology, circumstances, events will overtake us. And so as you are starting a business or in business, you need to do what they say about Wayne Gretzky, what made him so great.
“He didn’t go where the puck was, but where he thought the puck was going to be,” he said. “That's the purpose of today’s panel, to give you a sense of not just the how-to’s but also give you a glimpse into the future — about ways in which you can protect your businesses through cyber advancements into new areas for business development, and find ways to grow and expand your businesses as well. We are happy to forge that.”
Other presentations gave pointers to business owners on social media strategies, networking and cybersecurity. More information on resources the state can provide local businesses can be found at the Maryland Department of Commerce website, open.maryland.gov.