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City-county fight for HCFA is blow to regionalism


For several years, David Gillece, head of the Baltimore Economic Development Corp., has argued that the gap between city and county development costs has narrowed and, in some instances, might actually favor the city.

Now, closing in on one of the biggest plums to land here in some time, Mr. Gillece may be finding that the improved odds of being right are a mixed blessing.

Baltimore County is squawking loudly for the first time in recent memory about Baltimore's package of enticements to lure the new headquarters for the U.S. Health Care Financing Administration and its 3,000 jobs, which now reside in the county.

County Executive Roger B. Hayden has even enlisted the support of Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, who has some powerful friends in the federal government, where the relocation decision will be made.

The county's concerns illustrate today's tough economic times.

It's not likely we'd have heard such complaints during most of the booming '80s. But the county's objections to what it characterizes as an unfairly sweet deal being put together by the city (including land in a great spot near the new downtown stadium and mass-transit rail hub) also deflate the concept of regional cooperation we've heard extolled for so many years.

During most of those years, Baltimore's economic development officials and business executives, especially in commercial real estate, have watched a parade of office and company relocations from the city to friendlier suburban turf. The grass was really greener in the 'burbs, and cheaper too, thanks to lower land, utility and tax costs.

The city didn't like it much, but what can you do?

Now, the suburbs' wide open spaces aren't so wide open. Rising infrastructure costs (roads, utilities, waste, schools, etc.) have forced the tax collector to relocate outside the Beltway along with all the people.

So, suburban sites no longer win hands-down in location decisions. And, the HCFA relocation is no ordinary decision. As nice as 3,000 jobs would be, the potential employment base at HCFA is thought to be several times larger, given assumptions that adoption of national health insurance would create a much larger role for the agency.

Mr. Gillece says the suburbs still have a cost edge, on average, and he feels the city will be tested in making a case for its site based only on direct costs. Not surprisingly, he doesn't feel the city has done anything other than compete openly for a choice project. "I don't view it as a raid," he said.

Guy Hager, executive director of the Baltimore Regional Council fTC of Governments, also diplomatically says the HCFA issue is not a serious impediment to regional cooperation. "There has always been and will continue to be some internal level of competition" within the metropolitan area, he said.

"On the other hand," he added, "I am concerned about inadequate marketing of the region and that local jurisdictions are providing inadequate support" for joint efforts to promote the area.

Tom Chmura, head of economic development for the Greater Baltimore Committee, says the recession has slowed the GBC's effort to cooperatively market the Baltimore region but that local governments have been cooperative, especially given these new fiscal restraints. "We're going ahead, but at a lower level" of activity, he said.

Generally, the region's economic development experts have been in place for several years and work together smoothly. That's not the case with the area's new county government leaders, who face pressures to turn inward with their economic development efforts. And the current flap over redistricting the state's congressional boundaries may have splintered any sense cohesion for the time being (as well as fueled some of Representative Bentley's animosity in the HCFA matter).

Regionalism has always been more rhetoric than reality but the rhetoric was better than nothing, which is what we have plenty of right now.

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